Achieving the American Dream
Ohio's News Herald
Sunday, February 4, 2001
By Dave Truman, News-Herald Business Writer
Seeking to grow: Andy Birol, president of PACER Associates works with client John Shoup president of JTS Associates. PACER Associates provides advice to business leaders on how to grow their business.
Andrew J. Birol has been all over the world and up and down the corporate ladder in his lifetime.
The 40-something former corporate executive, raised under martial law in cold-war Istanbul, Turkey, moved with his American mother and his Turkish father to Westchester County, New York as a 12-year-old.
The change in atmosphere inspired the young Birol.
"I saw and really learned to appreciate, respect and love what it meant to be an American," he said. "The American dream became very real to me for some reasons most people never get a chance to appreciate."
Today, Birol lives the American dream with his wife and daughter in Solon, where he operates PACER Associates, a company he started in 1997.
Birol uses his life and business experience to guide PACER clients from all over Northeast Ohio and the country, companies with sales of $1 million to $100 million, in growing their businesses.
Drawing on strength from his daughter
After taking Boston University's highest academic honor, The Scarlet Key, and then earning his MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School in just 12 months, Birol took an internship with the United States Association of International Development in Nairobi, Kenya.
His first assignment was to help a wire and nail factory reduce material loss. When he discovered that the problem was a plant with no roof and no business planning or execution, Birol helped the plant manager build a roof.
Practical solutions and "getting your hands dirty" are an important part of PACER's business today, Birol said.
"I take chances and I am provocative," he said. "I'll tell people things that other consultants won't really have the guts to say, and sometimes I get fired for it."
It was his getting fired that led to the creation of PACER in 1997.
Birol, who had a daughter that was gravely ill, said he lost his job as vice president of sales and marketing at a local company that year because he and the CEO held different visions for the future.
Margo, his daughter, was born with cystic fibrosis, an incurable disease. She had been hooked up to a tube during a visit to his friend's home that weekend, Birol said.
"I went and sat in my living room for a half hour before I had to go down to The Cleveland Clinic to see my daughter," he said. "It was she who began to teach me what strength is really about. She made me focus on what is important and what is not."
Birol promised himself that day that he would never be treated that way again and he conceptualized PACER Associates in the Cleveland Clinic during Margo's three-week stay there.
"It continually and increasingly frustrated me when I was in the corporate world that so much time was spent on planning and so little time was spent on questioning what a company was really good at," he said.
Many companies become market driven and get out of what it was they set out to do and what they are good at, he said.
Local companies seek assistance
MGI Business Systems President Dick Sheehan said he became one of PACER's first customers after he saw Birol give a speech at John Carroll University.
Mentor-based MGI needed help distinguishing itself from a crowd of competitors with similar offerings, he said.
"Andy gave us a new way to market ourselves," Sheehan said. "He's a very good ally to have. He is not just there to agree with you.
"Now when we call people, we're not just saying the same thing everyone else is."
Birol spent a Saturday with MGI executives and made them shine bright lights into dark corners. Together, they analyzed who the company's customers really were and what they really wanted.
"He was not giving us the answers, but he made us think," Sheehan said. "He makes you figure it out, 'Do we know where we are going?'"
Sheehan said the strategy generated with Birol's help worked so well he has had him on a retainer since. Birol talks with Sheehan about once a month.
"A lot of people come in and try to help you run your company, he said. "He makes you think provocatively about how best to grow your company.
"Some people think a consultant is a magic cure, but they can only guide you."
MGI has grown 25 percent in the past year, success Sheehan credits largely to Birol.
Mark Bogomolny, president of Landmark Products Corp. in Richmond Heights, said he has sought out Birol's help a few times over the past two or three years. He said he knew of the PACER president's background and accomplishments, such as helping IBM exceed its sales goals by 100 percent and guiding Actel Cellular to a sales increase of 200 percent, and there were no doubts about Birol's ability to help from the beginning.
"Andy knows enough people and has enough experience to be able to help with marketing, Web stuff, advertising - so you don't need to bring in a bunch of advisors to handle everything," Bogomolny said.
Birol's value was his ability to bring an outside perspective to the company, he said.
"He helped us see things a little differently and cut through some extraneous information," Bogomolny said.
Birol helped point out that the firm was spending too much time on the intricate details of specific products and not enough energy reaching customers.
Birol used his marketing experience to help Landmark put together a catalog that would allow it to reach consumers with more health-food products without retailers having to stock them all.
Landmark's plan ultimately fell through when a supplier cut the company out of the loop, Bogomolny said. Birol, though, got the company in a position to make a daunting plan work.
In addition to his two degrees in marketing and his 20 years of experience, Birol uses psychology to get his message across to business leaders.
"Owners of companies, or the person that is running the show, has a problem bigger than sales and marketing, and that is getting the entire organization to contribute to growth," Birol said. "Every firm needs to determine what they do the best, who buys it, and what pain it resolves amongst people that buy it."
To that end, Birol talks to the company's current and former customers and with people who have never been customers.
"Too often, what a company sells, is not what a customers buys," he said. "People don't buy shovels, they buy holes.
"I help (companies) to focus on the two or three things that make an enormous difference in their business. The key is to try to get people to recognize that they can't do the other 49."
He calls himself a counselor and a coach to business leaders and their companies.
"The thing that gets in people's way is how complicated it has become," he said. "As businesses grow, they pick up all this baggage they feel is going to support their objectives.
"People assume that doing more is going to make customers happy when in a lot of cases doing more is just going to raise your costs."