Agile Businesses: Larry Oberly of SpeedPro On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies
An Interview With Charlie Katz
Stay up on industry trends. Read the publications, attend the webinars, even if it isn’t relevant to you at the moment, it can inspire future-thinking ideas. Learning from others can point you toward what you want to follow, and equally, molds you want to break. We were learning about how other companies in our industry were approaching digital signage, and we knew we wanted to do it differently. We started with our Smart Signage option which is a connected technology in a way that still fosters the need for print.
As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Oberly.
Larry brings 26 years of franchise experience from the food service, real estate and large-format printing industries. Before joining SpeedPro in November of 2017, he served for 17 years as Vice President of U.S. and Global Operations at RE/MAX LLC, where he headed growth, development, technology and training for more than 100 countries and territories, 3,850 offices and 54,000 agents.
Prior to RE/MAX, Larry was a successful multi-unit Baskin-Robbins franchisee with full P&L accountability for marketing and sales, quality customer service, team development, purchasing and accounting. After six years, he built and sold his businesses at a substantial profit and was elected to serve on the Baskin-Robbins National Marketing Committee.
Larry has three main roles as the President and CEO of SpeedPro: setting the vision of the company, growing existing studio sales and profits and awarding and supporting new studios.
Larry’s wife owns a Medical Training company and they are parents to one son. Larry loves traveling, running and hosting parties at their home. He has run seven marathons and eight half-marathons. He is also a guest lecturer at the University of Colorado and Georgetown University. He holds a BBA from Kent State University, an MBA from California State University, a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and is a member of the Entrepreneurship Advisory Board of University of Colorado-Denver, IFA International Committee and Convention Committee.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I came out of the airline and airline-related industries in the 1980’s where most of the line employees were unionized. I was groomed to work in black and white, not gray, when it came to work rules.
When I bought my first Baskin-Robbins store in St. Louis, MO in 1992, I did so as a sideline business. I never intended to quit my airline job (which I did in 1993 when I bought store #2). I hired a very skilled cake decorator as my manager; a wonderful person named Cindy. Cindy ran the store Monday-Friday 9–5. I largely spent my time at the store in the evening and on weekends, and I depended on her as my right-hand when I was not in the store.
We had a rule that all personal cups and personal items were to be stored in the back room. One morning I came into the store and saw a yellow cup sitting out. I took the cup to the back where it should have been stored and wrote a note on the cup that if it was left out again, I would throw it away. I didn’t know who the cup belonged to; it was left out against policy and this was my way of harshly enforcing the rules in my no-nonsense style at the time.
When I found out that my nasty note was delivered to Cindy and saw she was upset, I immediately recognized how critical Cindy was to my business and there was no way I could run the business as easily it without her. I shifted my tone from admonishing to appreciation. This realization changed my style of leadership to one who puts each individual on my team first. Fortunately, she saw past that one incident and my new approach encouraged her to work for me until I sold all of my stores in 1998.
In fact, when she had to step away from day-to-day work because all of the cake decorating she had done in her first five years at Baskin-Robbins, she developed Carpel Tunnel. I never hesitated to allow her to claim Worker’s Compensation for her injuries and she continued to open the store for me on occasion. We’re still close friends, and I’ve always remembered to show gratitude for my key employers and that simple interpersonal missteps can have disastrous impacts if you aren’t careful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Geoffrey Hill who was the Regional VP at RE/MAX in St. Louis, MO.
As I was in the process of selling my last store, I started my MBA. I also took computer training classes as Lotus 1–2–3 was being squeezed out by MS Office, and I was out of touch on the latest education, and I felt that I needed more skills to get back into the workforce. I really wanted to work for a franchise company after my experience as a Baskin-Robbins franchisee.
There weren’t many options for franchisor employment in St. Louis in 1998. Luckily, I got an interview because I used a RE/MAX agent to help me sell my store. This agent contacted Charlie Kerr, the outgoing Regional Director who was moving to the RE/MAX Denver Headquarters. Charlie is a dear, personal friend.
As Charlie was leaving St. Louis, my new boss, Geoff Hill was coming in as I was hired. I think it was hard for a company to hire me as I left the corporate world to own franchises and be an entrepreneur. There certainly were questions whether or not I could adapt.
Geoff was amazing to me. He allowed me to run my territory, always collaborated with me, and basically allowed me to use my entrepreneurial view to grow the business. He allowed me to be his partner in the venture.
Geoff also continued to promote me to the leaders at the World Headquarters in Denver. After one and one-half years, I was asked to move to Denver to be groomed to run the Region of Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico — a plum assignment.
I say to this day, had I joined RE/MAX HQ straight out of Baskin-Robbins, I wouldn’t have made it. But, starting under Geoff in St. Louis, was the transitional period that was perfect for me and my career. Thank you, my friend.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When SpeedPro started, it was an evolution of a printing company that sought to provide Great. Big. Graphics. Since then, the demand for large-format branding has skyrocketed and has become a staple in upscale design in commercial interiors, far beyond what was originally concepted.
I was lucky that I joined RE/MAX while it was founder-owned (David Liniger) and that SpeedPro was only three years removed from being a founder-led organization. Founder-led companies are interesting as there are specific mountains to climb when a company is started.
Both RE/MAX and SpeedPro are specialists’ organizations. They are focused on being the best at what they do. They don’t try to be all things to all people. Further, I feel that a company’s culture and overall philosophy needs to survive the times. Added to that is a commitment to the highest reputation and quality in our people and our products and services.
For instance, at SpeedPro our net promoter score is a demonstration of our excellent customer satisfaction, and it drives opportunities for referrals and repeat business. Our score is 96, which is off the charts.
SpeedPro’s founder Blair Gran sought to attract skilled businesspeople to the owner network. Most of our owners come from high-level positions in Corporate America who are tired of the rat race or red tape. We’ve largely kept that focus, but have also grow beyond that boundary a bit. There are many skilled individuals that didn’t necessarily come out of corporate that are outstanding Studio Owners as well.
Blair also wanted our team members and clients to think of SpeedPro differently. We don’t operate out of “centers, units or stores.” We run SpeedPro Studios.
Why? Because we’re a very entrepreneurial and creative business. We help solve problems or collaborate with our clients to change spaces, inspire and drive customer action and interaction.
Since business is changing so fast, and certainly faster and permanently since the pandemic, we’ve adapted our mission to “Partnering with businesses to achieve success through innovative visual solutions.” Our future focus will be keeping our core values and leveraging innovation to provide even more creative products and services for our clients. We are expanding our capabilities to keep up with the demands in the smart signage and in new spaces.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
SpeedPro is a light manufacturer of high quality, customized, Great.Big.Graphics. We’re a leader in wide-format graphics, providing clients with superior display graphic products such as wall murals, window and floor graphics, event and tradeshow displays, vehicle wraps and much more. Studios partner with clients for the long-term, working as an extension of their marketing teams and advertising agencies and collaborating with them to deliver custom solutions.
Every owner has a specialty and a type of client he or she likes to work with. We encourage each owner to experiment and develop the type of business he or she enjoys most. Because of the nature of working on large, often-complex projects, we develop long-term relationships with our clients, which fosters recurring business from the same client time after time.
We’re a large franchise organization that specializes in the B2B segment. Attractive to entrepreneurs who don’t want to have the grind of hundreds of customers walking through their store 7-days a week.
We help our clients to achieve high-impact branding and visual solutions. SpeedPro provides products to a wide variety of businesses and events. Our offering includes: wall murals, banners, decals, directional signage, elevator wraps, event graphics, event tents, flags, fleet wraps, floor graphics, indoor signage, outdoor signage, point-of-purchase displays, trade show displays, vehicle wraps, window graphics and more.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Quick Response (QR) codes and Near Field Communication (NFC) tags have been around for years, however, Covid-19 created an increased demand for touchless technology. Restaurants were the first businesses to jump on this trend, and it will continue into other verticals as more businesses open, particularly the event and trade show spaces and health care facilities.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
SpeedPro recognized this opportunity and developed a new brand for our Smart Signage offering, InfoLnkX to accommodate our clients who need touchless technology in order to keep customers safe and keep their businesses open. We also provided education webinars for our clients to learn new applications of this technology including Smart Signage that can send text messages, emails, place phone calls and FaceTime calls, etc. to help their businesses stay on the cutting-edge of technology.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
We had been planning on launching a Smart Signage initiative long before the pandemic and as soon as we realized the impact to business, we knew that expediting the launch as quickly as possible would benefit our clients.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
We have only scratched the surface in terms of the opportunity in this space. We plan to expand the product line into the industry verticals that could benefit from enhanced marketing, communications and safety.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
We realized we could fundamentally change how business is done through using this technology. For example, if a client can automatically call a sales rep during the shopping experience through simply holding their phone to a sign or if instead of scanning badges at a tradeshow, the potential client could be emailed a white paper that is specific to their needs, it helps our clients to provide high-touch personalization to their customers.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
A leader needs to be the “rock” by showing strength and facing the storm head-on. Facing reality and creating a plan for the here and now plus positioning the company to exit the disruptive period is critical and something I think we’ve done a good job of.
In our Smart Signage initiative, many owners were not familiar with the technology and they needed reassurance they would be fully supported and not let their clients down.
In an initiative that requires an expedited launch that is still well executed, it is critical for the team to see the vision and feel as passionately about it as the leadership team, and we were able to achieve that at SpeedPro.
And I think a leader must demonstrate care about everyone in the organization and their families, as well. Compassion is needed as every day throws new challenges.
As an organization, we’re more nimble, more driven, and I believe we’re truly set-up to grow aggressively as we come out of the Pandemic.
From a leader-perspective, I’m driven each day to show strength to the network. I can only remember two bad days since Mid-March. Every other day, I looked forward to what I could do and what our team could do to make lemonade out of lemons. I never wanted to let my team and owners down.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
We over communicated. Even when the news wasn’t always good, we communicated. We tried to provide inspiration every week and shared success stories from across the network.
We also listened — intently. If we were off the mark on any actions, we wanted to know. Our no-door policy helped us ensure that we’d be there for our team members and owners regardless of the day or time.
Since we couldn’t do much face-to-face, we dramatically increased the number of webinars we held for our owners. Whether it was updates or education on new products and services, we knew it was important to continue to give value to our owners. We wanted to be sure they were not needing something to help them get by today and tomorrow. In each of our strategic initiatives, we were very clear to demonstrate the “why.”
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Anticipate and communicate. A leader must anticipate the needs of employees, owners (partners) and their team members, and clients and answer the tough questions before they’re asked.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
In order to be disruptive, you must be timely and have an excellent product. If you sacrifice quality or usability to meet a deadline, your competitor will win. Missing a window of opportunity in order to achieve perfection is equally risky. It takes careful planning and a solid vision to achieve both.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stay up on industry trends. Read the publications, attend the webinars, even if it isn’t relevant to you at the moment, it can inspire future-thinking ideas. Learning from others can point you toward what you want to follow, and equally, molds you want to break. We were learning about how other companies in our industry were approaching digital signage, and we knew we wanted to do it differently. We started with our Smart Signage option which is a connected technology in a way that still fosters the need for print.
- The make-or-break point does not occur at the end result, it is set in the vision. Products and processes can fail and evolve as long as everyone is working toward the same purpose to solve the same problem, hard work and innovation will take it across the finish line. We tried a variety of different tag technology, platforms to track and monitor the technology and client applications before we arrived at the best solutions for our network.
- If another company does get there first, don’t give up, just do it better or in a new way. We were not the first company to make signs, banners, wall murals, etc., and we were not the first company to use NFC technology, but we were a first to apply it to signage to create Smart Signage and offer it as a product in a franchise model.
- Build a dedicated team. Our team members didn’t know about NFC when we first had the idea and now many of them are now subject matter experts.
- Hands on experience and testing is needed in any innovation, particularly a disruptive one. There is no way to anticipate problems until you experience them firsthand. Our team went through the process of learning to program the tags, going out and selling them, learning best practices of designing artwork around them and installing them on different products in order to troubleshoot potential problems before they occurred.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love Walt Disney’s quote, “It’s fun to do the impossible.” I’ve tried to always raise the bar and do something innovative and creative.
At Baskin-Robbins, my stores test marketed three different products. I always wanted to be at the forefront of new products to sell. I also wanted the responsibility of being the tester. At RE/MAX when I took over leading the Global Operation, I was surprised about how little we provided to our overseas master franchises. It was my mission to provide the same level of communications and benefits to a RE/MAX franchisee and agent in Argentina as we provided in the U.S. And at SpeedPro, I am driven to bring new innovations and opportunities to our SpeedPro clients. InfoLnkX, our Smart Signage product, and another (unnamed) new innovation we’re testing, would be a first in franchising.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: As Exec. Creative Director, Charlie Katz spearheads the full gamut of creative marketing for Bitbean Software Development in Lakewood, NJ. Charlie has over 20 years experience in major NY and west coast agencies, including Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, now Saatchi & Saatchi, D’Arcy-MacManus & Masius, and Wells, Rich Greene. Starting as a junior copywriter and moving up to Exec. Creative Director, he developed creative strategies and campaigns for such clients as Colgate, R.J. Reynolds, KFC, and Home Depot. Along the way he won numerous national and international awards including the NY Advertising Club ‘Andy’.