Cair Lerion Blog #16: An Interview with Harry Edelman

In our latest conversation with marketing and communications leaders in the heavy industrial space, Jonathan Rowland spoke with Harry Edelman, an executive coach who, according to his LinkedIn profile, “gets satisfaction out of helping companies and individuals grow”.

Can you give us a quick overview of your career so far?

I’ve always had a strong business sense from a marketing perspective. I started out in my entrepreneurial career delivering the local paper and washing neighbours’ cars on a weekly basis. That taught me the value of recurring revenue. I went on to study commercial photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and, in my senior year, undertook an independent study into starting a commercial photography business.

As a photographer, I met and worked with the creative community, including graphic and interior designers, public relations and advertising agencies, and writers. I learned about tradeshows, collateral material, multimedia, and the design and printing processes. Working with writers, I learned about how to tell a story. I also learned the difference between working for a customer and being the customer from the agency or in-house standpoint.

I had a chance to join Heyl & Patterson, a manufacturer of large industrial equipment, primarily in North America, but with customers worldwide, as the in-house agency. That allowed me to be the customer that people wanted to work with by saying “you’re the expert, what do you suggest”. When I left Heyl & Patterson, I realised I got personal value from helping others succeed. That is why I now consult with businesses. On the side, I invest in multi-unit apartment buildings, because I still love the recurring revenue model of business.

Who or what are your major influences?

Beauty, good design, humour and enjoying the unexpected.

You must have seen a lot of change over the years. What would you say have been the most profound in terms of how businesses operate and succeed?

Businesses need to listen to their customer. They need to solve the customer’s problems and not have the customers bend to the products or services they offer. And the best businesses are the ones that figure out what the customer wants, even when they do not ask for it.

Take some examples – Steve Jobs figured out how to create a product that a customer did not even know they needed. FEDEX created an industry from people wanting or needing it ASAP. This was not a new idea. Manufacturing had been using just in time processes for years, but FEDEX figured out how to transfer that idea into another segment. Amazon started out selling books: a dying business for brick and mortar but they were online. Then they realised they could create the infrastructure to sell just about anything online.

Change is inevitable. But the importance of listening to the customer and providing solutions to their problems is constant.  

How can companies ensure they both embrace and make the most of the change new technologies allow – without losing their identity, their employees and their customers along the way?

I am going to start by questioning everything you just asked. Why do they have to keep their identity? A business is not a history museum (unless it actually is one!). The goal of business is to create a product or service that can be sold for a profit to benefit the owners and employees, and bring value to the customers. Employees and customers come and go, some faster than others. Societies evolve. Companies must do the same.

It starts with leadership. If the leader talks change, but still uses an abacus, it will not happen. The leader has to embrace change and the employees will follow. This does not mean the leader has to identify the new technology, but rather be able to recognise what new ideas or technologies will work for their organisation. This comes from many sources, including the employees, and they should be credited.

I was at a conference once when someone from another company’s marketing department was complaining about a new product that they were supposed to create marketing for. They were not enthused and said the engineers and salespeople were not enthused either. I asked why it was being pushed then and was told it was the company president’s pet idea. Marketing hates the president’s pet ideas because they always have to get pushed to the front, even when they are not great ideas. Embrace change and new technologies that make sense and, if they do not work, move on.

You spent a lot of time in heavy industry where companies can be more traditional and conservative. Is it still important for this sort of company to change and evolve with new technologies?

Yes, but it will be slower than in the pure digital world. Robots and CADD are two examples that have been embraced over the years. I think some of these companies will embrace change not because it is new and great, but because they need to do it to stay competitive and the return on investment is there.

Looking into your crystal ball, where do think the next revolutionary changes are going to come from?

Autonomous everything. I live in the Strip District of Pittsburgh near Uber Technologies and beside Argo AI, the autonomous vehicle partner of Ford Motors. In this area, they are working on self-driving cars, boats, and trucks. I know of one company that is working on a road train, where the lead trucks actions are controlled by a driver and will be duplicated by the autonomous trucks following. The question for everyone is this: is this an opportunity or a problem? If it is an opportunity grab it. If it is a problem, can your company solve it and make a business around it?

We’ve talked a lot about change but are there any timeless strategies for growing business success?

The basics need to be in sync. Finance, sales, marketing, engineering, purchasing, accounting and leadership all need to understand the plan. The leader needs a vision and the right people need to be in the right positions. The biggest thing a leader needs to understand is the numbers. To many small entrepreneurs do not understand their P&L and balance sheet. They think if they have orders and money in the check book they are succeeding. So the timeless strategy for growth is know your numbers and get your team on board with the plan.

If you were able to give young Harry Edelman, just about to start out on professional life, any advice, what would it be?

Chase your passion and the money will follow. If there is no money in your passion, it is a hobby so keep looking for your passion. It may not be as much money as you would like, but passion is more important than money.

How do you turn off and relax? 

I enjoy small groups of friends, my family, museums and I love travel. I love the serendipity of life. Last year, my wife and were driving to Boston and we noticed a sign for the Marcel Breuer House. We both like and respect architecture and it was near where we were staying so we spent an afternoon exploring the house and neighbourhood.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, Harry Edelman is an executive coach, specialising in helping small to medium-sized companies and individuals grow. He was previously Executive Vice President at heavy manufacturing company, Heyl & Patterson, with responsibility for strategic marketing and global business development. In his spare time, he invests in real estate in his home city and is a visiting faculty scholar at University of Pittsburgh Katz School of Business, where he serves on the board of the MBA simulation programme.

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