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Strategic management.

Scores of books outline philosophies about strategic management, but sometimes it s nice to hear from executives who can share their experiences based on today's realities.

The second annual Arkansas Executive Summit which is fast becoming a must-attend event for the state's business leaders, assembled a panel to discuss their strategies. We heard views from multiple perspectives--two entrepreneurs, two executives of global companies and the top executive of the state's largest health insurance company.

A common theme that stood out is the belief that we have to hire the best and smartest people we can find to develop and execute strategy. This reminded me of what Jim Collins writes in "Good to Great" that takes the theme one step further: you have to hire not just good people, but the right people.

Bob Shoptaw, CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said "strategy is the key enabler that allows an organization to function effectively between stagnation and anarchy."

Strategic organizational management was critical for BCBS to transition successfully from a traditional indemnity insurance firm to a managed care environment during the past decade. The three elements he focused on were people and corporate culture, leadership and change management.

Shoptaw also noted that BCBS starts with a strong, effective board of directors that delivers a strategic asset and creates organizational value. He contrasts this with a "negative impact" board that drains a company, a "no impact" board that rubber stamps decisions and a "basic monitoring" board that provides mechanical management oversight only.

Sam's Enduring Philosophy

Randy Cameron, vice president of global development for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said founder Sam Walton's strategy "was so clear and on target that it's enduring" and remains in place today. Walton's three basic issues were respect for individuals, service to customers and striving for excellence.

The mission statement is the foundation for strategies, Cameron said, and a good strategy can stand the test of time. For Wal-Mart, improving the standard of living for people by providing quality merchandise at discount prices is a strategy that works globally.

Doug Duncan, who is president and CEO of FedEx Freight Corp. of Harrison, said the drivers for strategy are culture and people--who must be engaged, educated and empowered.

Duncan said his team faced the strategic task of bringing together the FedEx acquisitions of Viking and Harrison-based American Freightways, which had "two great cultures and two great entrepreneurs." The effort was driven by FedEx CEO Fred Smith's desire to carry the "absolutely, positively" mantra in the overnight delivery business to the trucking industry.

Maria Johnson Norris, who has led Little Rock-based Aristotle to become the state's largest Web design firm, said her company's strategy emphasizes how to serve the customer better and avoiding change for its own sake. She said it's critical to ask the right questions when evaluating personnel, process, competition and other issues to develop a game plan.

Norris encourages executives to be unafraid to ask the tough customer the hard questions and to focus on what people love about your product or service.

Work Hard, Work Smart

Breck Speed, CEO of Clear Mountain Spring Water in Little Rock, spoke just days after acquiring the venerable Mountain Valley Spring Water operation in Hot Springs.

He follows the belief that "you can't just work hard--you have to work smart." Since "water is water," his business is about the execution of a strategy to sell and deliver. And once you find a business niche, he said, you have to have the discipline to stay in that niche.

Finally, a few other tidbits heard during the summit:

* Customer and employee expectations continue to skyrocket.

* Executives continue to work for balance between logic and intuition, and gut feeling and fact.

* More companies are wilting to fire abusive or impossible to please customers.

* Employees have to be able to visualize a vision to ultimately buy into it.

Now we can all get busy.

Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at
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Author:Hankins, Jeff
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Jul 5, 2004
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