One note at a time
by Matt Krumrie The first thing Mike Cleary did after returning from a recent two-day business trip to Milwaukee and Chicago was send 13 notes to customers, clients, vendors and others he had met.
They were simple notes, some as short as two sentences. One thanked a client for meeting with him. Another let a vendor know he really enjoyed a presentation, and a third reminded a potential customer about the services his company could provide.
Cleary was after more than simply more business. He did this, he says, because he believes in fostering relationships. “That stuff just comes naturally to me,” says Cleary. “I truly believe in the little things, but building relationships is a big thing to me.”
Those little things have added up to make the company he founded in 1996, Chanhassen-based Coridian Technologies, one of the fastest-growing small businesses in the nation.
Coridian Technologies provides label, printing, data collection and support systems to medical technology firms, industrial manufacturers, and distribution companies. These include consulting, printers, media, software, scanners, wireless data collection terminals, integration services, and ongoing support.
The 10-employee company was named one of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in America by Inc. magazine in October 2001, after a five-year period in which Coridian posted 581 percent growth from $321,000 in 1997 to almost $2.2 million in 2001. Coridian is projecting revenue of around $3 million for 2003.
Not bad for someone who started his business with his wife, Mary Cleary, in the basement of his home. But still not good enough to get Cleary overly hyped.
“I just don’t get excited about things like that,” says Cleary about the Inc. recognition. “Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s a great honor and something I am proud of, and I am really happy for our staff because that is a direct reflection on what they are doing, but I don’t gauge our success on numbers alone.”
Then what does Cleary base success upon? Relationships, he says — relationships that might not result in immediate rewards, but are based on honesty and integrity.
“I want good customers. I want people to love us,” he says. “I’ve had people say they know that I’d get up in the middle of the night in my pajamas to deliver a product to them if they needed it. That’s how I want my customers to think about us.
“I don’t want to be the biggest, and I don’t have to be the best,” he says. “I just want to be successful at what we do.”
Skip Larson, production support technician at the local office of Seagate Technology, remembers meeting Cleary. He was looking for an outside source of support for the Zebra printers used in his factory. Larson contacted numerous people at several companies, and one of those was Coridian, where his initial contact was with Cleary.
Larson says he was “less than enamored” with any of the options he was getting for printer support, but talking with Cleary changed that.
“He is personable and easy to get along with, a guy that I found myself warming up to almost immediately,” says Larson. “Mike has excellent people skills. He seems to warm up to just about everyone, and is just as at ease with an executive type as he is with the guys who turn the screws.”
Larson also says he believes one reason for Coridian's success is the relationships that Cleary has with his employees.
“There is no hierarchy at Coridian,” says Larson, and it’s true that there is no title on Cleary’s business card, just his name and company information. “Mike values everyone. They trust him, and are ready to bust their tails for him whenever needed.”
“Mike could go down the aisle at a trade show and talk to every single person at every booth, and those he talked to would gain from it,” says Kristine Bowditch, an account representative with Coridian. She has worked with Cleary for more than five years, and has known him for over 25 years. “But he’s not a schmoozer. He’s not just trying to talk to you about his business. He genuinely cares about what people have to say. I can honestly say he is the best boss I have ever worked for.”
When he first visited Larson at Seagate, Cleary insisted upon looking up a former colleague just to stop and say hi.
“I have worked with a number of vendors in the past, and most of them were very good at what they did,” says Larson. “The difference with Mike is that it becomes a personal relationship.”
Cleary, 40, grew up near Hayward, Wisconsin. His parents owned several small businesses in the area. Cleary, who has a degree in sales and marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, says he was always the guy who worked nights and weekends, the shifts no one else wanted, and the shifts that needed to be covered when someone called in sick.
He says he saw his parents struggle enough to make ends meet that it helped build an inner drive to succeed, and at the same time, helped build his desire to always learn more.
He is a voracious reader, reading up to six business magazines a day, and constantly reading business-related books. But what Cleary truly has thrived on is continuing education.
He has completed the Fast Trac, Fast Trac II and Beyond Startup programs at the University of St. Thomas, where he is a frequent guest speaker, providing advice, sharing personal experiences and his lifelong lessons with other business owners. For that, Cleary was honored in 2001 as the recipient of the University of St. Thomas John M. Morrison Center for Entrepreneurship Lifelong Learning Award.
Gregg Schneider was the director of small-business development at St. Thomas and co-founder of the FastTrac programs in Minnesota when Cleary attended.
“Mike was able to see an opportunity that others did not see,” says Schneider, now at Risdall Advertising Agency. “He developed a concept and a vision for a business that today is Coridian Technologies. He took the time to analyze, research and totally understand his marketplace. Then he made the concept happen according to his plan, adjusting and adapting to unanticipated surprises along the way.
“He has made thoughtful decisions at each stage of development that have helped the business to grow into what it is today. It has been fun to watch him turn his original vision into reality.”
Through those programs Cleary learned what it was like to develop a business plan, and put numbers and goals in writing. Cleary says he has met every projection stated in the original plan, impressing bankers along the way with how thorough he was. One of his biggest thrills is going back to St. Thomas as a guest speaker, and someday he wouldn’t mind becoming a professor, teaching what he has learned to other business owners.
“I think it is really neat to share ideas with other business owners,” says Cleary. “I don’t do it to build my ego or to seem important, I do it because I truly enjoy it.”
The first Coridian employees were hired in January 1998. Cleary and his wife, Mary, ran the business out of their home for three months until Coridian moved into a 2,500-square-foot facility in Eden Prairie. By 2001, the company moved into its current 5,500-square-foot facility in Chanhassen.
“It was crazy,” says Mary Cleary about running the business from their home. “We had five desks in the basement and cars parked all over the place. But through it all, Mike never seemed to stray away from his goals and business plan.”
The only thing he did was work more than he should, and although Mike Cleary emphasizes that he is not a workaholic, he might have been then.
“With the business at home it was real easy to head downstairs at 7 or 8 at night and work on some things because it was right there,” he says.
Not all husband-wife tandems are able to work together in the business world, but for Mike and Mary Cleary, it has been a positive experience.
“She’s the finance person and I am the sales/marketing person,” says Cleary. “The nice part is that I don’t have to go home and rehash everything from the day. And when it comes to sensitive information like doing the books, who better to trust than my wife?”
Mary Cleary says she sees what makes Mike successful.
“I think a lot of it is personal integrity,” she says. “He’s very ethical and really believes in doing what is right for the customer, not what is going to make the company more money.”
Cleary says one of his biggest downfalls as a business owner is taking the time to stop and worry about the other aspects in the business. He emphasizes that business owners need to “take time to work ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ the business,” he says. “It’s easy to let the daily work keep you from taking time to step back and see where you are going.”
He also believes that his employees need to enjoy the workplace setting. There is a foosball table in the warehouse at Coridian, and daily games between employees are common.
“I don’t claim to be the director of fun” says Cleary with a laugh. “But I also know that sometimes we just need to get up and get away from the grind and have time to clear our heads. If it takes a game of foosball, an extra day off, or some personal time, then so be it.”
Cleary’s goals don’t necessarily include adding staff. Right now the company has more support people than sales people, and most of Coridian’s employees have numerous duties. Cleary talks at length of someday adding a sales department, a marketing department, or an IT department. He knows he could hire someone to improve Coridian’s Web presence. He hasn’t changed it much since he developed it himself when the company was founded.
“We’re still small enough where we have people wearing a lot of different hats,” says Cleary. “But is that a good thing? I don’t know. I am the typical entrepreneur. I started the company doing everything, but know I need to pull back a little and let others do their job. There are days I want to go out and do it myself instead of trying to do it through our people, but I know the company will never be strong if it’s just me.”
Coridian has many new initiatives on the horizon that will continue to help Coridian grow. Then maybe it will be time to add more people, but Cleary doesn’t know where.
“I have more support people than I do sales people. That’s how we think,” says Cleary. “Usually you have all these sales people out there. Well, I have four people that do nothing but support what we sell.
“Some people think that’s crazy, but that’s resources for our customers. They think that’s backwards, you should only bring people on staff when you have to. Our organizational chart is really wacky. We don’t have managers. We don’t have departments.”
What Coridian has is those relationships that Cleary puts at the forefront.
“There’s a silver lining to everything, and why things work out the way they do,” says Cleary. “The way we take care of people is one of our biggest attributes. To me that is such a cool thing, and something that truly makes me proud.”