Mike Ablon joins the Dallas Business Journal for panel discussion on innovation and disruption

June 20th, 2018 by Jessica MacDonald

Original story here

The Dallas Business Journal held a panel discussion recently about business innovation and disruption. The group was convened by Deloitte and included local top executives. Jason Downing, North Texas managing partner and Central region market leader at Deloitte LLP, moderated the discussion. Participants were Mike Ablon, principal and founding partner, PegasusAblon; Dan Berner, partner, Deloitte & Touche LLP; William Davenport, CFO, Topgolf Entertainment Group; Warren Ivie, CEO & Founder, Ivie & Associates; Christopher Kleinert, CEO, Hunt Consolidated Investments; and Nina Vaca, Chairman & CEO, Pinnacle Group. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

How do you adapt to disruption?


William Davenport (Topgolf): We look at ourselves as the disruptor. We are changing how people think about where they go for entertainment. People are gravitating more toward social, interactive entertainment rather than just going to a bar, a movie or casual dinner. It’s a tough industry, and you see now movie theaters are trying to change and make the experience more entertaining. Bowling alleys are doing the same thing; bars and places like Punch Bowl Social are bringing all kinds of new games into play. And that’s what we do already – the Topgolf experience has many layers – play, food and drinks, music and a sense of community.

Warren Ivie (Advertising and marketing services company Ivie & Associates):With traditional retail, they have traditional thoughts of promotions and sales and how they go do business. The disruptive aspect is challenging. We have a digital department that does nothing else all day everyday but understand where that next great push is going to be. It’s moving so fast that retail can’t keep up with it.

Nina Vaca (Workforce solutions provider Pinnacle Group): We’re doing a lot of things in terms of disruption. Most of our innovation is around technology and how we run our business. At Pinnacle, we’re doing our first project with robotic process automation (RPA) this fall to allow our associates to free up their time to focus on more complicated, engaging tasks. You would think that might scare some people, but the reality is that for us, it has been incredibly positive because we have simultaneously been growing rapidly while remaining committed to our high-touch model of treating clients as partners. By leveraging RPA, we can focus on clients’ needs more robustly and help our associates grow more quickly. There is a lot of value in freeing people to focus on what truly matters.

Christopher Kleinert (Hunt Consolidated Investments):  In the case of Hunt, being predominantly in the energy business, which saw tremendous disruption because of the oil price collapse, we had to adapt to disruption and do so quickly. We looked at every aspect of our company, every function, activity and business unit and assessed where we needed to be to survive and ultimately thrive. In the case of our oil company, it was rethinking capital structures to finance our activities and attract third-party capital. In the case of our refinery, where we produce asphalt, we recognized that to truly succeed we needed to shift the culture and business strategy to being a retailer as opposed to a wholesaler. It is competitive, but we can build and sustain some competitive advantage and enjoy better margins. This is just one example. No one wants a dramatic shift in their business like we got when prices fell by 75 percent, but we’re significantly better today as a company and stronger as a management team than we were when prices were higher. That was our seminal disruptive, innovative moment.

Jason Downing (Deloitte): Disruption is good for the professional services business, and it’s been good for us. There was this mentality, man vs. the machine. And now it’s sort of like, let’s figure out how to advance with this and to really evolve into man with the machine.

Dan Berner (Deloitte):  Definitely agree, Jason. In the audit and assurance practice, we’re continuously evolving the way we work. We’re using technologies like artificial intelligence, automated workflow processes, and cognitive technologies to help streamline audit delivery and provide greater insights and transparency throughout the process. These technologies are complementing human workers’ efforts – not replacing them.


How do you navigate growth in today’s market?


Ivie: We would have loved to have stayed small, but we couldn’t stay small. We found that we had to keep growing to stay ahead of the revenue needs for the company. The more clients we got, the more people we hired, the more people we hired, the greater the revenue need was to support those people. You accept the responsibilities for families, their personal lives. That became a driving thrust to us over the years. Selling out to a large organization the first part of this year, to us it seemed like the final stages of the evolution of our company.

Vaca: The thing that people don’t know about Pinnacle is that we had a liquidation plan in place in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. I had to make a fundamental decision on what kind of company we needed to be in the future, which I ultimately realized hinged on our ability to successfully leverage technology. We’re constantly looking for ways to get better and do more with less. We are also focused on the development of our associates, so they can spend their time on what moves the needle for our clients. The path we’ve chosen is complex and requires a lot of up front work and investment, but it’s pretty darn amazing to see it pay off.


How do you manage your workforce in the era of disruption?


Vaca: We really drive an entrepreneurial culture and what that means is that you have to accept that things don’t work sometimes. Our goal is always to measure ourselves and our associates by their wins instead of punishing them harshly for failure. Entrepreneurship is about experimentation and being resilient in the face of failure. Pinnacle is highly decorated with lots of awards – more than 200 – but there are plenty of failures along the way. Those are the learning pieces, though, that help propel us forward. It’s become our culture and I feel like that’s the most impressive thing about Pinnacle.

Davenport: It’s no longer acceptable to just say, “Hey we’re going to pay you, so you should come in to work.” People today want to know why. So we focus on clearly explaining, communicating and living our purpose to connect people in meaningful ways and create moments that matter for everyone.

Kleinert: We want to attract people who want to go to work for the best companies…period. If we’re narrowly focused on just the best in our industry, we’re not going to survive. Both our company and our industry are changing rapidly. We’ve got to think big and to succeed we’ve got to go out and attract the best. We are a dynamic, community-centric energy company. Purposely broad but saying we make the communities in which we operate stronger because of our presence. As a company, we do a lot of things and adapt quickly to change. What you may be doing in five to 10 years may be totally different from what you are doing today, but I promise you it will be exciting. We’re going to challenge you, and you’re going to grow as a person as we grow as a company.


How are Dallas and North Texas positioned for the future?


Downing: I’m such an optimist, sometimes to a fault. I love North Texas, I love this community. I love everything that is going on in the city. I feel like we’re on the verge of a golden age. I have done a lot of work in education and I can’t take credit for this, but someone said we can import talent, but we can’t export our problems. We need to continue addressing the fact that higher education is not attainable to a lot of our folks. We all need to come together to address our education needs, and there are many good things happening in North Texas to help take us there.

Kleinert: The can-do attitude of Dallas, especially when compared to that of other cities, is not to be underestimated. We are fortunate to live and work in an area full of very talented people (CEOs, academic and civic leaders) that are problem solvers and visionaries that will continue to develop and attract more talent. A pretty interesting value chain of human capital, loosely put.

Downing: Deloitte is doing a lot of research around the future of work. In the 1970s – when most of us were thinking about school and careers – 30 percent of the jobs required high school education. Today, over 60 percent of the jobs require that. So that divide is getting even larger if we don’t solve this problem we’re talking about. It’s just radically different than just a few years ago.

Mike Ablon (Dallas developer PegasusAblon): We’re going to be big, the only question is, are we going to be great? It’s a bit of an existentialist question, so how do you define greatness? Whether you look at it as a moral imperative, which is where I’m coming from, or you look at it just economically, you come to the same conclusion; furthering our education systems and job training for a new economy are the bottom lines to the economic success of our city.