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A Pink Perspective – Insights from President & CEO David Ratcliffe of Pink Elephant

I met David Ratcliffe, President & CEO of Pink Elephant over a year ago at the BEDC AGM. We began chatting about their annual conference they run each year in Las Vegas. David’s creativity and passion rose to the forefront. IT can be a fairly dry subject but not at Pink Elephant. Each annual conference has a theme – the previous years had been the Beatles – All you Need is L.O.V.E. David managed to find a gentleman who spent a week in India at an Ashram with the Beatles and brought him in as a guest speaker. That year’s theme was Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall. David had all kinds of ideas on how to make the event outstanding. David and Pink Elephant get it. Edutainment (combining education and entertainment) yields outstanding results. Below are David’s insights as to how he is continuing to grow Pink Elephant even in challenging times.

1. What is the number one thing you are doing right now to foster hope in your organization?

Making sure everyone is informed and getting them to understand that what is happening out in the world is not just stuff that is happening to us – and we have no control. I believe that we are in control of our own destiny. Cutting costs, hunkering down and cocooning don’t make you successful. This comes from spending money wisely. Your are only going to be able to maintain a decent level of business if you are selling. Having a team that is well informed – knowing how we are being impacted and what strategies and techniques we are deploying means we can make well-informed decisions. Being decisive is important, we need to take action and continually access and communicate regularly. Since October our management team has been meeting regularly to determine how to best deal with the challenges of the economic situation. This recession has had a major impact on our customers and they have cut their budgets. We have less business as a result, but we are still profitable and optimistic about the future.

To me this is a fascinating time, I get excited that it’s not the “same old, same old” – this is a chance for us to take our skills, knowledge and insights and put them to use. There are problems and issues that need to be addressed. If you’ve got a million dollar customer who’s cutting back, you need to get really creative, engage with them and you’ll be stronger at the end.

It’s certainly not pleasant, having to let people go and cut back, but we are acting quickly to make the most of opportunities and I think people appreciate our honesty. We are fortunate to have an executive team that is on the ball.

2. Where are you still investing?

We are absolutely investing more in new product development than ever in our history. Analysts would say this is a good thing to do. It’s easy to say that – but you still need to have the funds – and the courage – to do it. We are concentrating on the type of product development that will yield short/medium-term gains as well as stand us in good stead for the long term. This is not a time for a solely short-term focus. We have a whole bunch of initiatives on the go to develop products that can be sold to customers within a few months. We are modifying current products to meet the economic climate. We will do remote training through the web rather than fly people around for training. The two areas we are still investing in are sales and product development. We actually just hired a salesperson, the first new hire in almost 6 months

3. Where are you cutting back?

We have cut back pretty much everywhere else. We have reduced our workweek, frozen recruitment and promotions, stalled pay raises in all areas. 4. What three things do you think are most important during tough economic times?

Most important in “normal times” is managing cash, and that’s even more important today. But, we also need to sell more – put additional focus on selling. You need to be careful about exclusively monitoring spending and cutting costs. It’s easy for that to become the primary area of focus. Selling is key and the reality is sales people need to work harder to get sales in this economy.

Timely key performance metrics – You need to be well tuned into your performance measurements and consistently accessing your state of health and trends. In good times business might operate at predictable levels and you see steady trends month after month. In this economy there can be dramatic changes and you need to be tuned in day by day to learn quickly if you need to make a change fast. Execute quickly and effectively – Execution is key, you need to make it happen. You can’t afford to waste a minute and you need to make relevant decisions quickly.

5. What would be your number one advice to business leaders?

Be decisive and act – You can have all the information but if you just sit there looking at it there will be trouble. Leverage good data, make your decision and follow it through.

It’s hard for me not to mention selling here again. You need to look at how you are going to earn more money rather than focusing solely on saving money.

6. According to the Conference Board of Canada less than 25% of companies have a strategy and plan in this slow economy. First of all do you have a strategy and plan?

No, not in the strict sense of “a plan”. We are managing very well, our strategy is everything I talked about including communication and letting our team know we have an approach. So we do have a strategy, but we haven’t documented it in a plan. Last year we developed a long-term plan for a couple of years out; guess what – we haven’t referred to that much lately! In this competitive market place we have to be more proactive and ready to react to opportunities in a faster time frame. Our level of business may be down 15% year over year, but there is still lots going on.

7. Why do you think so few companies do?

I hope it’s because they doing what we are doing but I suspect it is because they are sitting tight – suffering from the deer in the headlights scenario. I hear about companies going out of business, or they’re in trouble for whatever reason, but I can’t help thinking a lot of businesses haven’t thought through their approach and are just stoically reacting to what happens to them. 8. How do you feel government could help improve the current economic state?

The #1 thing I would like to see government do is to help create a more confident business environment. I feel so far it’s been a knee jerk reaction with subsidies, bailouts and tax cuts instead of promoting stability and encouraging banks to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. We need our leaders to be confident, optimistic and proactive – not reactionary.

But there has to be practical substance behind the confidence. It doesn’t make me feel good when I see the governments in the US and Canada making guarantees – especially in the auto sector – that they haven’t thought through and can’t back up. President Obama is telling people to buy a Chrysler or GM car and the government will guarantee you will still be able to get parts and service even if the manufacturer goes out of business. How would they back up warranties? It would be virtually impossible if they go down. Dealers will disappear, the skilled labour force will get retrained, and suppliers of parts will go out of business or retool. It would be a nightmare.

Regarding bailing out of companies their needs to be rules that go along with it. The board probably needs to be refreshed – after all, how can we count on the guys that were part of the problem to come up with quick solutions? On the upside I see that the US government is buying up big chunks of business, then nominating people to steer the company forward. Hopefully the tax payer will get greater value back in years to come – so it shouldn’t all be about increasing debt – but the press rarely talk about that.

9. Where do you feel the economy will be a year from now?

I have no idea, and I certainly don’t have enough direct influence to impact it!

10. What do you think Canadian businesses need to do to thrive in a commoditized global market?

I feel in a global market there’s a lot of strength in the Canadian brand due to our political stability and reliable banking system. Canadians are held in high regard – we are seen as trustworthy, honourable, and innovative and we speak the international language of business. I think these factors are both appealing and reassuring in an international marketplace.

Great insights David, thanks for providing the “pink” perspective.

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