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Baldrige Award
Winner Profile

An interview with Guy Schoenecker, president of BI

by Robert Green

On Feb. 25, President Clinton and Commerce Secretary William Daley presented 1999 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards to four companies in a ceremony held in Washington, D.C. Among those companies was BI, a provider of business improvement programs to large corporations.

 What follows is an interview with Guy Schoenecker, president, chief quality officer and founder of BI. This is the second of four interviews conducted with a representative from each 1999 Baldrige Award winner.

 Decades ago Schoenecker incorporated Business Builders as a continuity-premium company that provided customer incentives through a catalog of jewelry, luggage and sporting goods. As the company's focus changed to serving the needs of corporate clients, its name was changed to Business Incentives. After many successful years of providing corporate incentive programs, the company broadened its services to include market research, recognition programs, business theater, incentive programs, meeting services and more.

  Now simply named BI, the company bills itself as a full-service provider of business improvement programs that combine communications, training, measurement and rewards. With headquarters in Edina, Minnesota, BI employs more than 1,400 people and has two additional facilities and 21 sales offices throughout the nation.


QD: What is the primary service that BI offers?

Schoenecker: Our core business is incentives and training. We provide programs to Fortune 500 companies; our biggest clients are General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, AT&T, and other big telecommunications, automotive and pharmaceutical companies. We provide incentive plans for their employees, salespeople and dealers that motivate them to achieve a goal--and when they achieve a goal, they get an award.   We're also in the training business because sometimes you need to begin there. You can't just dangle an award if people don't know how to do something. So we provide training and other services that motivate and boost morale and improve performance.


QD: When did BI begin to work toward winning the Baldrige Award?

Schoenecker: We started our quality process in 1984, and we have applied for the Baldrige Award each year it's been in existence.


QD: What were the major obstacles your company faced when it failed to earn the Baldrige in previous attempts?

Schoenecker: In the early years it was skepticism on the part of our associates. For some time, our people were waiting for us to stop, thinking we were just waving the program-of-the-month banner. After a while they realized that this wasn't going to go away.

 Another obstacle was the Baldrige criteria itself, which I believe was somewhat biased toward manufacturing in its early days. However, the criteria changed over time.

 Other roadblocks were really of our own making--internal things like strategic planning. But once we got the momentum going, there was really no stopping us. Over the last five or six years we've made some huge improvements because we've improved the biggest of all issues: people's attitudes. Once we got everybody marching in the same direction, we built incredible momentum. In fact, it became so much a part of our culture that we couldn't remove it; we couldn't shut it down. We began several different quality improvement processes, which today can be utilized or initiated by any person within our organization. In fact, last year almost 600 of those were initiated. Because the company leaders don't have to know about these quality improvement process projects, it's really empowered people to run their own show.


QD: What was the most successful tool in changing those internal attitudes and getting BI employees to buy into this improvement process?

Schoenecker: We simply refused to give up, even though we knew people were waiting to see who would blink first. They would ask, "Are we going to apply for the Baldrige next year?" and "Why are we applying for the Baldrige?" But then, as they started to see that this was an empowering process, they got on board. It became more of an entitlement and less of a program that we demanded of the company.

 Our employees were also very motivated when BI won the Minnesota State Quality Award (MSQA) in 1994. We were the only winner that year, and the first service company to win the MSQA.


QD: Is BI involved with any other quality awards, or is the company ISO 9000- registered?

Schoenecker: One substantial part of our business, our data processing and measurement information management division, is ISO 9000-certified. But the Baldrige is much more encompassing than that.


QD: There are some obvious benefits derived solely from the Baldrige application process, but do you expect any bottom-line benefits from having received it?

Schoenecker: We believe the primary benefit is an ongoing return on investment. We're a service company that produces creative and conceptual "products." Cleaning up our processes and making communication easier by having fewer levels of management helps us become more effective and our people more productive, which ultimately improves customer satisfaction.

 An important part of our quality initiative is our "Customer Delight Process," a companywide process that took a long time to document but is now audited on an ongoing basis to make sure it's being followed. We survey clients at the beginning of each program to determine their expectations. At the program's conclusion, we measure our performance against those expectations. Different departments or different managers within those departments often have very different expectations: Some are as simple as "make me look good for my boss," and some are more practical. But that whole process works for us; it drives waste out of the company.


QD: Do you feel that winning the award is going to help you win new business?

Schoenecker: No--it won't hurt--but clients don't beat down our door to do business with us. We have to earn their trust and their business. It does give us a third-party endorsement that no other company in our industry is even trying for. Also, it has increased our reputation and improved our market image, but I don't think anyone is going to call us up and say "I want to switch from company A to your company because of the Baldrige." I think it's going to be a subtle but solid affirmation that we are a leader in our industry.


QD: The Baldrige Award is, of course, getting bigger and bigger with the inclusion of health care and education sectors. Is it becoming increasingly prominent among the corporate clients with which you're in contact?

Schoenecker: I think that, for the people who know about the Baldrige Award, it's becoming very highly respected. But there are still some areas of American business where they just don't get it. Some CEOs we've encountered are reluctant to make the commitment that using the Baldrige criteria demands. It's difficult to garner support from some boards of directors for a program like this because there's the feeling that if you don't win the Baldrige Award in a year or two, the effort has resulted in failure.


QD: How beneficial was the feedback you received in the years when BI failed to win the Baldrige Award?

Schoenecker: Extremely beneficial. We received a feedback report from the team that judged our application every year. In my view, it's the most valuable consulting tool that you can find because it comes with both a list of strengths and a list of opportunities for improvement. It's very effective to have these well-trained people who really understand the criteria come in and spend a lot of time on site visits.


QD: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to continue to apply the criteria, even though you can't win again for another five years?

Schoenecker: Winning the award comes with a lot of obligations; this year we're going to be busy just being a winner. But we are going to continue to fill out applications and have former examiners score us as part of a self-assessment effort. It's too important to our growth and leadership effort to let this die here.

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