In this episode, I interview Benno Duenkelsbuehler, Chief Expansion Sherpa at reALIGN Expansion Sherpas.  We discuss how he engages with his customers using a unique model to help them create new consumer products, break into new markets, and expand the markets they’re already.  Benno’s unique insights into corporate change spawned some great discussion around some of the challenges you can run into, and how to fix problems when they pop up.

Sam Schutte:                In today’s show, we have Benno Duenkelsbuehler, who is Chief Sherpa, ReAlign Expansion Sherpas in Cincinnati, Ohio. I met Benno a few years ago at ACG Cincinnati, and today we’re going to talk about growth at the intersection of innovation and execution in consumer products.

Sam Schutte:                Okay, Benno. Welcome to the show. Glad to have you here.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Thank you.

Sam Schutte:                So maybe a good place for us to start is how did you get started? How did you get into this field? What’s your background?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Sure. I got my start really in the business world after college spending 10 years on the retail side working for big retailers like IKEA and Pottery Barn, as marketing manager, as buyer. And from there, I went to the wholesale side, distribution side of the business, and spent 10 years essentially on the selling side of the desk instead of the buying side of the desk as head merchant and then general manager and CEO of big distributors. And then 10 years ago, started my own company and we’ve been … We put teams together to help companies expand into new channels, new categories, or grow in their core channels and categories with a better go-to-market process.

Sam Schutte:                Okay. Interesting. And you primarily focus on which industries?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           The process that we use to help companies grow is really industry agnostic, but the people, the sherpas, we ourselves are not industry agnostic. So because my background is in consumer products, we tend to get projects in the consumer industry, factories or distributors that are selling either through ecommerce, direct to consumer, or to retailers in a B2B environment.

Sam Schutte:                Okay. And what was the first real game-changing project you did in the space that allowed you to take off in the arena?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           It would have been way back when I was a buyer, on the buying side of the equation, and I was given a challenge to develop a residential lamp program for Pottery Barn. And the idea behind it was pretty revolutionary, crazy, innovate, whatever term you want to use. But the idea was to take a glass beaded lamp shade that was available, only made in Italy at the time, and sold at eight, nine hundred dollars retail. I was being challenged with developing a similar glass beaded lamp shade program out of India at one tenth that price, one twentieth that price actually, like 29, $49 type of price point. And the complexity of working the design angle, working the sourcing angle, working the international logistics angle of combining manufacturing overseas for the lamp shade with US manufacturing for the lamp base and putting that all together was a hair-raising experience but a fascinating experience and ended up being this multi-million-dollar success story.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I don’t know if that was my first break, but that was just a big success story that happened when I was fairly young, and that gave me the confidence to take challenging projects that other people run away from because they seem to be too complex or too unconventional. I love those types of projects, and we’ve done projects that clients have given us in the last 10 years since I started ReAlign that the internal team just maybe doesn’t have the bandwidth to figure out. It’s not necessarily that they’re so complex they’re like brain surgery, NASA type of complexity. But the internal team usually doesn’t have the bandwidth to figure them out, so we help our clients figure out those kinds of category development, channel development, go-to-market process development challenges and create multi-million-dollar successes for the clients.

Sam Schutte:                So I’m curious with that particular project with India and the US, and why would they do the lamp shade in India and then the base in the US? I mean, if you’re going to do one piece over there, why not do it all over there?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Basically, different countries are very good at different things. India is very good at handicraft. The lamp shade, there’s no way that a machine could make that kind of lamp shade product. But the lamp base has wiring, has UL-listed parts. If you don’t machine those parts, you’re setting people’s houses on fire. At least at that time, lamp bases were typically made in US manufacturing plants.

Sam Schutte:                So is that on a lot of the projects you get involved with, you are trying to come up with a strategy for building different pieces from international suppliers, that common pattern for things you’re working on based on each country’s strengths? Is that something that happens a lot?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           At times. The more product related a project is, the more you end up looking at manufacturing strengths within different countries or within the United States as well. But many of our growth challenges are not necessarily product related. They are oftentimes just taking the same product but into a new channel. We have a distributor that does hundreds of millions of dollars of distribution into brick-and-mortar stores, and they had not figured out how to sell in ecommerce without competing against the brick-and-mortar stores. So that was a growth project that had nothing to do with product development or product manufacturing. It was all about channel distribution, channel idiosyncrasies, and coming up with an omnichannel distribution strategy.

Sam Schutte:                So that’s an interesting question. So in general, how do brick-and-mortars keep from competing against themselves when they open on ecommerce? Are there some best practices there, or does it really depend on what they’re selling?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           It depends on what they’re selling. It depends on whether they’re selling branded product or unbranded product. So in this particular project that I’m thinking of, the distributor was selling unbranded product to the brick-and-mortar retailer, usually under the Target brand or the Walmart brand, the house brand, private labeled. So we came up with a different private label name for selling similar product online.

Sam Schutte:                Okay. Interesting. Kind of make it so it’s exclusive so you can only get it there type thing?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Exactly. Exactly.

Sam Schutte:                [crosstalk 00:08:29] interesting. In the consumer products industry, what are some of the key drivers and pressures that are affecting your customers or forcing them to want to talk to you or causing them to want to talk to you to achieve expansion? I mean, what are some of those pressures they’re under?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I think a couple different pressures. One pressure is just the ubiquity of product availability. I call it the democratization of design. It used to be that designing a product, distributors or factories that knew how to design a product ended up owning that niche, and design has become more ubiquitous. There’s more access to designing products. Technology has allowed factories to knock off each other’s product designs.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           So one of the ways that we help clients is to differentiate their particular package, which includes the product design, the product price, the service, the whole go-to-market formula. We help them differentiate that go-to-market process to be more effective than their competitor.

Sam Schutte:                When we talk about product design, I guess, can you clarify for those of us that aren’t working exactly in that space, when you’re talking about design, are you just talking about the colors and look and feel of, say, a lamp, or is it from a user interface perspective?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I mean, it’s all of the above.

Sam Schutte:                All of the above.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           There’s product design, which is the look and feel and color and shape and size. That’s traditional product design. Then there’s an engineering component where oftentimes you have to engineer to a price point. If you want to sell something for nineteen ninety-nine and the designer thinks it should be gold-plated, it’s probably not going to be nineteen ninety-nine. So you have to reverse engineer for it to maybe look like but isn’t. Packaging is part of the design process. Think of Apple products. When you go to an Apple store, the way that is packaged is part of the buying experience and how we think about Apple. The design is part of it. And then usability and user interface is part of the design process. So there’s a ton of different aspects-

Sam Schutte:                Sure.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           … to product design.

Sam Schutte:                I used to get into cloud services and apps and other things sometimes too and especially I’ve seen more and more companies doing all kinds of products that are IoT enabled and stuff, for instance, that that’s part of the feature set maybe. So it’s pretty broad, a broad topic to it, I guess. So I think another thing that’s interesting about the way that your business operates is … So your title is Chief Sherpa. The name of the company is ReAlign Expansion Sherpas. So talk about that term, sherpas, because maybe not everybody uses that term in other industries, and how does that reflect how you engage and why that’s different and better for your customers?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           So I started the business 10 years ago, basically hanging up my shingle as a consultant, and I realized pretty quickly that, in 2009, when I started the business, right after the Great Recession, the world had gained, or the United States had gained, I don’t know … We had rampant, 10, 12% unemployment, so there were, I don’t know, 10 million unemployed people. So we had gained nine million consultants that year, meaning the term consultant is completely overused and in fact, is not … Most consultants, even professional consultants, not just people between jobs, but professional consultants, don’t typically focus on execution.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I make fun of the consulting world by saying, “They’re people who tell you what you already knew using bigger words, putting it on a pretty PowerPoint, and then they walk away, after leaving a five or six-figure invoice.” So I used the word sherpa to express that we are really serious about execution. We help our clients reach new mountaintops of new channels of distribution, new categories of product, better go-to … that’s like reaching new mountaintops. You would never take a consultant on a trip up Mount Everest.

Sam Schutte:                Sure.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           You would take a sherpa, who is an experienced, trusted guide, who carries the load, carries the backpack, pitches the tent, makes coffee in the morning, and makes sure that you get to the mountaintop. So that’s really how we approach our work with clients. It is side by side, [foreign language 00:14:19], and when I use the word sherpa, people usually that makes sense or it gets the question you just asked me and you’re like, “Oh, okay. I get it now.”

Sam Schutte:                Yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting because I think largely that’s the way we work too, and you’re right that in our space, probably 90% of quote, unquote, “Consultants,” are really just not an employee who’s a [inaudible 00:14:51] type position, short-term, six-month contract thing. I mean, they’re just … It’s another way to avoid a W-2 or something in a way.

Sam Schutte:                And then there’s other folks out there, that we certainly know tons, that they just come in and tell you about their framework and their system and then they leave you, like you said, a blueprint or a roadmap or whatever and good luck. So I think it is pretty cool and really so much more effective when you really get into their environment and work on it with them because otherwise, you can’t assess anything short term to know that you’re even giving good advice.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           And you certainly can’t execute it within three months, right?

Sam Schutte:                Yeah.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           So our projects tend to be two or three-year projects where we go from concepting to writing the roadmap to aligning all the pieces of the roadmap to make sure the product and the people and the channels and the go-to-market strategy is aligned and executed. And it usually takes at least a year to have a couple million dollars worth of revenue flowing in from those ideas, and then it takes another year for that to be a multiple of that.

Sam Schutte:                Yeah. Well, and I imagine you spend a lot of time as a teacher as part of those engagements too potentially because, like we said, if someone puts together a PowerPoint, a consultant, and says, “Do things this way,” well, that doesn’t change the customers’ ability to execute on it, but you have to gradually help them improve, help them implement those things so that two or three years later, it’s set. They know how to do it now.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           We do a fair amount of workshops with clients where we’ll do a couple-hour meetings, a number of weekly meetings for a couple months, or two-day off-site training sessions.

Sam Schutte:                I’m curious. If your projects are two or three years in length, so do you typically do one engagement at a time that’s taking all of your attention for three solid years, or how do you split that up so that you’re not so much ebb and flow?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           We usually have, plus or minus, a handful of projects going on at the same time. There’s a group of us. All of our sherpas are contractors to stay in the hunt and hungry, and some of them are in a place in their … or mid or late level career, late career folks, and they’re perfectly happy working 20 hours a week, 30 hours a week on one or two projects. Others are eager to work 50 and 80 hours a week. But we try to solve the traditional consulting model challenge of ebb and flow with a contractor sherpa model-

Sam Schutte:                Got you.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           … that allows us to have a fairly even flow of projects.

Sam Schutte:                And we’ve talked before about some of the model you try to do with that is like you’re a startup living within the enterprise. Is that something you still kind of-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Yeah, it is. I mean, our projects essentially are internal startups. We work with mid-size businesses that are typically … I would say our sweet spot is somewhere between north of five million dollars of revenue and south of 200 … between 5 and 200 million dollars of annual revenue. We’ve had clients that were outside on either side of that spectrum. But those types of mid-sized distributors, mid-sized factories are in need of somebody to help with the internal startup of an idea and executing it. It’s not just about, “Hey, let’s do an innovation workshop and use really cool language for two days and then write a three-inch binder and put it on a shelf.”

Sam Schutte:                Sure.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           But let’s create an internal startup where a sherpa has been put in charge of making sure that the people and the processes or everybody’s aligned and we work towards getting it done.

Sam Schutte:                And I’m curious when you look at factories and distributors, that particular space, are there certain go-to-market projects that you find you’re doing, not the same thing over and over and over again, but is there a certain thing that everybody is moving into? Is everyone wanting to get into ecommerce, or are there certain major patterns that places are getting the highest ROI by growing into, or is every project completely different?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I think the red thread, the commonality between all our projects, is that our client, the owner, the CEO, top executive of a company, is eager to grow faster but has hit some kind of growth ceiling. So we help them break through that growth ceiling, whether that is through ecommerce or through a new product or through just changing the current go-to-market process to a more effective go-to-market process. I would say the common thread is they’re looking for growth, and we can do it one of three ways, new channel, new category, or core channel category but better go-to-market process.

Sam Schutte:                Interesting. So it sounds like, it’s kind of an interesting concept, that anybody making products in a consumer space … I mean, things are not infinitely scalable. So I mean, eventually the way they’ve been doing things that took them from, say, two million to 50 million, they’re going to hit a ceiling potentially, and they’re going to need to make some major change, either to drastically cut what it costs to build these things or make new products or find a new channel because they’ve saturated and they can only sell so many at Walmart, let’s say. Walmart is selling as much as they possibly can for them. What’s next? Because otherwise, they’re going to stick right at 50 million. So those are some ceilings that you help break through, I guess.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Exactly. We help companies break those glass ceilings or growth ceilings. And the real problem that we solve … The real problem is that you cannot run a … Even the most talented executive on this planet cannot run a business and build a new business at the same time with the same resources. That’s a universal truth, and I think that’s probably the reason why companies hit a growth ceiling because everybody on the team, even the most talented executives, are working however many hours, 40 or 80 hours a week, fully engaged in running that business. And when you’re fully engaged in running that business, you don’t have the bandwidth to build a new channel, build a new category, or a better go-to-market process for the core channel and category. So you need some resource, in our case, an outside resource of sherpas, that comes in and figures out that problem of what does it take to build that new business while the core business is continued to be run.

Sam Schutte:                It’s like there’s always the advice that entrepreneurs get to working on versus working in the business, and I guess that sounds like it applies to even much larger firms. Probably gets worse the larger you go, right?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Yes. We help them work on the business while they’re working in the business, but then we’re also working in that new business.

Sam Schutte:                So when you’re engaged on projects like this, where do these run into challenges? I mean, where do these engagements struggle? What are some of the hangups on … Obviously, not everything goes flawlessly all the time.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Yeah, I wish.

Sam Schutte:                So what are some of the main walls you run into, I guess, on these?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I think buy-in and resources are common challenges that we run into. Buy-in from the core team working on the core business. We need to make sure that they’re bought into the fact, that they’re excited about, that they believe in this new business, this new adjacent category or adjacent distribution channel that we’re building for them, that they’re bought into the fact that, “Oh my god. These sherpas are building that for us. They’re getting it from zero to something,” let’s say zero to $10 million, whatever the number is, so that when it reaches a threshold, the sherpas will turn it over to the core team, and the core team will be excited about running with that business. So buy-in is something that we’re always challenging ourselves with, make sure that we have buy-in for what we’re doing, because without it, resources end up drying up.

Sam Schutte:                People get pulled off onto other things.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           People get busy and people lose patience. So project momentum is hugely important. When we help a company enter this, in one of these three ways grow, and we say, “We believe there is a $20 million revenue opportunity to be had within X timeframe,” we got to make sure we hit those revenue numbers by the timeframe. And if we don’t, the project loses momentum, loses credibility, and resources will get pulled.

Sam Schutte:                Interesting. Where does technology touch these projects? Do you use a lot of software tools to-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           We do.

Sam Schutte:                … track that return or … I imagine there’s a lot of manufacturing technology that you could come and implement in order to be able to make certain new types of products.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           So our clients have technologies, obviously, in the manufacturing space. We have robots or CNC machinery or what have you that have a tremendous impact on the costing and efficiency of manufacturing. On our side of the equation, communication technology is what keeps me up at night. When I started this business 10 years ago, just having an email account and a phone line that let you make free phone calls to China, that was pretty cool 10 years ago. Now it’s about online collaboration and platforms, whether that be simple things like WeChat and WhatsApp or Trello or Slack or … We use Office 365, SharePoint, and Team to communicate between the sherpas and sherpa to client. Just in the last six months, we’ve spent a lot of time improving the way we are, what we call, memorializing the journey.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           When we’re on a two or three-year project, everybody knows in the first three months, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I know what they’re doing.” But then six, twelve months into it, certain people on the client team might be like, “Okay. What exactly are they working on again?” So having SharePoint is a way where we can create folders and give access to the client team so that it doesn’t just sit in somebody’s email inbox and somebody’s hard drive and it’s the old, “Oh, yeah. I sent that to you three months ago.” Now it sits on SharePoint. They have access to it, and so online collaboration is changing rapidly, obviously, and is an important tool, really for any kind of off-site collaboration.

Sam Schutte:                And are most of your team members remote, all over the place-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           All of them, all over the place. All of them remote. We have clients here in Cincinnati. We have clients in other states. We have clients in Asia, in China, in Vietnam, in Europe as well.

Sam Schutte:                Yeah, so especially you definitely have to rely on all those different portal technologies and whatnot just to share information because you’re not going to be able to do it in real-time all the time if you’re spread across like that. I’m curious too. You were talking about being able to keep people on the pulse of change for a project and up to speed with the information that’s out there. When you’re dealing with that long-term of a project, how do you handle turnover within a customer too? Because we’ve run into issues before where we’re 12 months into a 24-month thing and the main stakeholder leaves and you’re like, “Ugh.”

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           “Dang. We’re starting from scratch.”

Sam Schutte:                And they’re like, “Tell me about what is this project we’re doing that we hired you for?” Again, do you run into that often or … ?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I’m just remembering one project four or five years ago where the division president of the client’s company retired halfway through the project, and a new division president came in and asked exactly what you just asked or what you just said. “Oh, what’s this all about, and why’d you do it this way?” And we’re like, “Well, we’re halfway done, and okay, so now we’re questioning all the base assumptions.” The biggest tool I used in that case four or five years ago was just diplomatic collaboration, figuring out how to get the new president comfortable with where we were, and we had to negotiate some changes because she was coming from a different place, and that’s her right.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Today, we have an additional tool, which is this online collaboration. It makes it easier for me to bring a new division president or a new director or vice president who just started last week, it’s easier to bring them into this, get them up to speed on the project when you have an easy way of file sharing that is organized in a logical way. You’re not just doing a data dump of 92 different Excel sheets and Word documents and PowerPoints, but you’re giving them access to four different folders or, let’s say, three different folders that are named Beginning, Middle, and End. And that makes turnover easier to manage.

Sam Schutte:                I think you’re right. It certainly takes a lot of diplomacy, and that’s a good word. I mean, it’s …

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Marriage takes diplomacy. So does this.

Sam Schutte:                Sure. Yeah, because what I find, especially high-level executives that enter in, they don’t want … So if you’re working on a project that was mainstay banner project for their predecessor, on one hand, if you’re like, “Look. You’ve spent millions of dollars, and you want to pull the plug,” how can they justify that? But then you’re almost twisting their arm a bit, like the, “Oh, you have to keep us.” And there’s no real motivation to them to glorify their predecessor or to make the predecessor look good. So can you get it under their wheelhouse and make them look good?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           That’s right.

Sam Schutte:                And on the other hand, obviously any executive that comes in has their own background and history of the way they want to do things, the changes, and they want to make an impact. They don’t want to just seem like an interim person that’s just maintaining the status quo. So probably some of it is just the professionalism by which you engage them and not twist their arm and make it, “Okay, well, how do we need to change this project so it fits with your goals?”

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           You’re absolutely right, and when I describe the ideal sherpa to be involved in projects like this, for sherpas that are project leaders, we’re looking for people that have 20, 30 years of experience. So it’s not just about project management and visibility and accountability, but it is also about doing that in a diplomatic and comfortable and organic way that helps us to manage change because what we’re doing is change management but it’s not change management in the, “Hey, let’s have a half day workshop on change management, put it in a binder, and check the box.” We’re helping companies either create growth or manage growth, and that’s the kind of change management.

Sam Schutte:                Got you. I imagine then that there’s certain clients or … not clients, but prospects or opportunities that approach you that are not a good fit. How do you select the projects that you want to work on, and what are you really looking to do next, I guess?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I joke about the fact that there’s probably a thousand companies that need us but only 10 that want us. And so that’s the first differentiation between a good prospect and just a prospect is their willingness to accept help, their openness to an outside perspective, them being excited about an outside perspective, and then outside of that, the filter we use for potential prospects is, “Do we think we can add at least $3 million worth of revenue that we can hang our hat on within 24 months?” We’ve done much more than that, but if it’s less than that, it becomes difficult. It becomes less interesting for the client. It becomes less interesting for us. So that’s one of the filters we use. “Can we add at least two or three million dollars worth of revenue within 24 months?”

Sam Schutte:                Interesting. So that’s a pretty repeatable process, that you’re like, “Three million over 24 months.” Can you just say, “Thumbs up or thumbs down if I think I can do it for you”?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. So then …

Sam Schutte:                I imagine that lines up with whatever ROI they’re getting from it and what they’re paying and all that too.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Exactly. And when I said earlier our sweet spot is north of five million dollars, it so happens that 50% of five million dollars is two or three million dollars. So if I [crosstalk 00:37:21]

Sam Schutte:                That’s pretty drastic growth for a $3-million company.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           50% growth within 24 months is drastic, which is why for 100, $200 million companies we’ve done 10 and 20 million dollars. But at least getting two or three million dollars within 24 months is important. Then we can apply the resource intensity that gets that, and the client can get an ROI on what they’re paying for the resource. It makes it interesting for them.

Sam Schutte:                Yeah. Well, and like you said, even if you’re a $20-million company, adding 10, 15% to your revenues is a big deal-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Can be a big deal.

Sam Schutte:                … in two years. What do you think the most personally rewarding project recently that you’ve worked on has been, just what’s really connected with you that you’ve enjoyed?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           It comes down to people in the end. There’s one client, actually right down the road here, Daniel Guigui at Down Decor, who has been a client for almost four years now. And we have been able to build a mutual trust relationship and a almost brotherly, call each other out, what I call, “Healthy tension,” kind of relationship that produces magical results. When you have that rapport with a client and vice versa, they with you, then you don’t spend time watching your back. You’re just putting all of your eyes, your vision forward, not backwards.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Together, we tripled the size of his business in the last three and a half years. That’s tremendously rewarding for him, and it’s fun because that’s a game changer. His business today, he just added a 20,000-square-foot building to his manufacturing plant. He’s got 90 employees where he used to have 50. He not even doubled the number of employees but more than tripled his revenue, so you do the …

Sam Schutte:                What are his products that he sells?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           It’s a basic bedding. They make all the white boring stuff that’s between the sheets, pillow inserts and comforters. Beautiful, high-quality, down-filled, not Walmart quality.

Sam Schutte:                Interesting. No, I mean, I think that’s rewarding all around when something is a hit like that and you have a big success, for sure.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Nothing succeeds like success, right?

Sam Schutte:                Yeah. Well, and it’s fun. It makes it fun to come in every day and think up new ideas. And of course, you get a lot more free rein, I imagine, to try new things and whatever when you’re trusted like that. What do you think are some of the sweet spots outside of some of the industries we’ve been talking about, in terms of consumer products? What are some industries that are maybe you’ve done less in but you’re starting to get people wanting to get your help in?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           So we are venturing … from an industry perspective and then from a functional perspective. From an industry perspective, we’re venturing outside of that traditional consumer product space. We just did a growth evaluation for a construction product company. They make countertops. It’s a countertop fabricator, so they’re selling to general contractors and millwork and casework manufacturers. So that’s a new vertical that we’re getting into, and that’s fun because it’s proof of concept for what I said earlier. “The approach is industry agnostic, but the sherpa is not.”

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           And then from a functional sweet spot outside of the traditional business-building, category, channel, go-to-market process, I would have to say organizational development because we end up working closely with certain departments, certain individuals on the client team. Even if we only work with them every other week for an hour, they’re lending us a resource but we end up getting a close look at what works, what doesn’t work in different departments, and that invariably leads to somebody like me will have an opinion on, “This department could maybe be run better if you changed this process or maybe a person needs to be more willing and open to change.”

Sam Schutte:                So I guess when you say organizational development, it’s almost like rather than entering a new market, a new channel, a new product, which is the typical three big things I think you’re doing, right?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Right. Yeah.

Sam Schutte:                That’s the markets they’re already in, the products they already have, the channels they’re already in, just trying to make them work better and run better, I guess. Is that something where you’re … Are you looking at coming in and doing lean and agile and sigma and these sorts of things to help in that regard, or is it more managerial type skills?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Sometimes it’s just organizational, looking at the organizational chart and looking at, “Should this work be done by three departments or seven departments? Are there redundancies? Are two departments doing the exact same thing?” That type of question. So when we look at organizational charts, sometimes it’s looking at job descriptions. “Do you have the right people on the right seats of the bus?” And sometimes it’s training sessions. I’ll give a quick example.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           We had a factory that had a 20-person team that was basically doing product engineering and product quoting with the customer, and three good people probably could have done the work of the 20 people. This was a 20-person department in Vietnam where labor rates are so much lower that the pressure … That would have never happened in a high-wage country. But we ended up doing several days worth of workshops and then follow-up with video call training over a number of months to teach the team how to simply know who’s on first and what’s on second. We called a RACI shop. You can google it, RACI, R-A-C-I.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           R stands for who is responsible, A stands for who’s accountable, C for who is to be consulted, asked, and I is who is to be informed. So those are different levels of involvement between being accountable and responsible and asked and informed that we gave them our suggestion or actually, we worked on who should do what within those four letters on each project, and that, in itself, ended up being an eye-opener for that client, for that team, that not everybody needs to know about everything because when everybody thinks they need to know everything, nobody knows nothing, because-

Sam Schutte:                Nobody can absorb everything.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Because nobody can absorb everything, and you need to have the right people absorbing the right things. And you probably don’t need the owner to make every decision, but you probably need the owner to be informed on everything and maybe even consulted on most things but not to be doing everything.

Sam Schutte:                That’s interesting. Well, that’s interesting. I imagine if you come into a customer that is, I don’t know, a few hundred people and they’re nowhere near as lean and mean as your internal startup team is, it’s interesting the cultural and process differences between that. I mean, there must be a wide gulf between the way things are run. And so if you can go back and basically re-engineer the old stuff, I mean, again, that’s I’m sure a whole other sort of level of service and market for you, but it would be interesting.

Sam Schutte:                Because I was involved in a startup years ago that was basically just an internal subsidiary of a large insurance carrier, and so it was this fun … It grew from six people to 80 people in one year, but it was this fun, upbeat, dot-com type thing within this 10,000 employee-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Stodgy.

Sam Schutte:                … stodgy insurance company. And of course, I mean, they all thought we were from another planet.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Because you were.

Sam Schutte:                So I imagine you run into that. Do you have to deal with that-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           All the time.

Sam Schutte:                [crosstalk 00:48:13] people fighting to want to, “Well, I want to be on the fun team,” or something like that?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I mean, there are … I think one of the reasons I love doing what I do is because I grew up in Germany. I came to the States when I was 16. I’ve spent my whole life being not from around here, and that applies to the way I work. I go into a client’s business, and I’m not from around there. And our sherpas have worked in a number of different companies as an employee and now as a sherpa, and that gives us an outside perspective, that fresh outside perspective when we walk into a client, and it allows us to just point out the, “Hey, you’re all speaking Greek over here, and you’re all speaking Chinese over there. Why don’t we try something different?”

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Companies are filled with little subcultures. The accounting department is usually a different subculture from the product development department, and the sales department is another subculture yet again. And some of that is okay for making that function work, and some of that can be made better by learning another language and translating between the different cultures and giving them a common language to, “Okay, so you’re an accountant and I’m product engineer, so we do different things.” One is from Mars and one is from Venus type of thing, and that’s okay. But how do you bring mutual respect into that? And that’s where, when I talk about organizational development, helping clients … I love helping create those aha moments where we look at their org chart or we look at their processes together and I’m asking a couple questions and they’re like, “Yeah. Okay, I see where you’re going. Got it. Check.”

Sam Schutte:                Well, and it’s interesting. I’ve thought before about … I think to be truly great, let’s say, as a consultant, as an outsider coming into another company to help them, it does sort of get baked into your DNA a little bit because you have to have had such a diverse path maybe in some ways. If you were born in Cincinnati and worked for 35 years at one company and then said, “Okay. Now I’m going to go out,” and do what you do now, it’d be much harder. But since, like you said, you’re an outsider or have always felt that way, you probably are, I would imagine, you hear a lot of the same things over and over again from a lot of different people, different companies. I mean, that’s what I always find. It’s rare that I hear something really new or like, “Oh, I’ve never heard that before.” It’s always the same problems. Most of the time, they’re people problems, right?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Or process. Or lack of vision.

Sam Schutte:                There’s a book I love called The Secrets of Consulting, and his number one law I think it is is, “No matter what anyone tells you, it’s always a people problem.” All problems-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Sure.

Sam Schutte:                … doesn’t matter, stem from people. But yeah, you have to have an interesting background I think to be able to come in and do what you do for companies.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Got to be open-minded, that’s for sure.

Sam Schutte:                Yeah. Yeah. And, like you said, have vision. So primarily, if folks are out there listening, I guess just to summarize, if they’re manufacturing a product, if they’re distributing a product currently, the main problems that you can help them with-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           [crosstalk 00:52:40] growth.

Sam Schutte:                … that they should reach out to you are-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Growth. The main problem that we solve for companies is you cannot run a business and build a business at the same time with the same resources. And if you hit a growth ceiling, we can help you break through that growth ceiling and change the way you think about your business in some cases by reaching another mountaintop.

Sam Schutte:                Very cool. And what’s your website?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler: 

Sam Schutte:                Very cool. And do you want to give your phone number or email address maybe that folks can reach out to you?

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           Sure. You can reach me at Benno@ … that’s B-E-N-N-O,, or give me a call at (513) 407-5436.

Sam Schutte:                Great. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show, Benno. I always enjoy our in-depth, analytical conversations around these business challenges. I find so much of it applies even to my business. We’re nowhere near the size of your typical client, but everyone faces some of the same challenges and has blinders to opportunities, so-

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           This was fun. This was fun. Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

Sam Schutte:                No problem.

Benno Duenkelsbuehler:           I always enjoy it as well.

Sam Schutte:                Great. Thank you.


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