What would Bob do? A catering company prospers despite the death of its creator, in part because of his open-management style and his sharing of expertise.
Creative Corporate Catering’s marketing director, Tom Kuehl, and operations director, Teri Dullnig, holding a photo of company founder Bob Lapkin, who died last year. “The good thing about working for Bob was that he never treated you like you worked for him,” Dullnig said.
Creative Corporate Catering, the New Hope company that delivers restaurant meals to business clients, is humming along just the way founder Bob Lapkin envisioned.
Revenue was up 24 percent through June, compared with the same time last year, and was on pace to top $4 million this year.
New initiatives are in the works, including a revamped website and a push east into St. Paul and surrounding suburbs after its main competition folded. The company, which Lapkin started in 2001, also will launch its first branded product, a private line of desserts, in a few weeks.
And employees are gearing up for the company's signature event -- its annual Fall Restaurant Showcase set for Sept. 10 at the Golden Valley Country Club. There, 1,000 or more clients and prospects will sample fare from many of the 40 or so company-affiliated restaurants.
The event will be noteworthy this year for the absence of the man who created it -- Lapkin, who died in November after a heart attack at his home. He was 53.
His office, furnished as he had left it, sits dark.
Next door to the office, in the conference room at the new headquarters the company moved into in September, artwork he had yet to hang still rests on the floor, maybe the only thing on his to-do list that's left undone.
That the company continues to operate successfully despite his passing is in large part a tribute to Lapkin.
Entrepreneurs concerned about their legacy and their company's may want to consider the way Lapkin ran his, as summed up by longtime employee Teri Dullnig: "Surround yourself with good people and share your knowledge with them, because they're the ones who are going to look after your business after you're gone."
An energetic motivator, Lapkin eagerly shared his knowledge of how to run the company with his employees and with others in the industry, Dullnig said.
He valued innovation and looked to his staff to join him in coming up with ways to improve. He built on ideas that worked but didn't expect a home run every time.
"The good thing about working for Bob was that he never treated you like you worked for him," Dullnig said. "He treated you like you worked with him. So he spread his knowledge to everybody, which put us into position to be able to continue running the company seamlessly, because he taught us what to do."
There was no question that the company would go on, said Dullnig, recalling a meeting soon after Lapkin's death with his wife, Cathi , who owns Creative Corporate Catering and has stepped in as president.
"Cathi asked, 'What are we going to do? What are we going to do?'" Dullnig said. "We said, 'We're going to go, we're going to run.' We needed to do it for us. We needed to do it for the employees here, the drivers here. We needed to do it for the family. And I think we needed to do it for Bob."
Cathi Lapkin promoted Dullnig, who had served 10 years as office manager for Bob Lapkin, to director of operations. (Dullnig began working for Lapkin at a company that he sold before he started Creative Corporate Catering.
Working alongside Dullnig is Tom Kuehl, director of marketing. He had run Lapkin's now-closed Milwaukee office, left for another job, then returned in September to work for Lapkin here.
Lapkin had ambitious plans to open in 10 markets in 10 years, Dullnig said. He had expanded to Milwaukee and St. Louis but shut down the former office last fall. Those now in charge closed the St. Louis office at the end of last year.
Instead, Dullnig and Kuehl are mounting a move to expand market share in St. Paul and the east metro, an opportunity that looks more promising after a competing delivery service closed in September.
"We've really just decided to keep the future here," Dullnig said. "We're not saying we won't ever go into another market. Generally speaking, I think we would not try and start from scratch in other markets [as Lapkin had done]. If the possibility arose to purchase an existing market, that would not be out of the realm of possibility."
One of the biggest changes Dullnig and Kuehl have made took effect July 1, when they raised delivery charges. The increase helps offset the higher fuel prices facing 50 to 60 independent contractors who serve as the company's delivery drivers.
They also have changed the company's rewards program, to give customers more options. Orders now earn points that customers can exchange for gift cards, spa packages, flat-screen TVs and electronics. A new program offers customers $25 for each successful referral.
Lapkin's counterparts in the Restaurant Marketing Delivery Association have recognized his contributions to the industry by creating the Robert Lapkin Award of Excellence.
The award recognizes his spirit of innovation and the high standards he set; Creative Corporate Catering was its first recipient, at the association's convention earlier this summer.
The plaque sits on a shelf in Dullnig's office near a picture of Lapkin and amid souvenirs he had brought her for watching his dog during his frequent travels.
"I look right at him every day and say, 'OK, am I screwing up? What do I need to do?'" she said.
Kuehl said when executives are planning new initiatives on how to grow the company, they ask themselves: "How would Bob handle this? You're always thinking that in the back of your mind."
The expert says: John Pope, a Minneapolis-based business consultant who advised Lapkin, meets monthly to discuss operations with Cathi Lapkin, Dullnig and Kuehl.
"They've exceeded most people's expectations in terms of keeping the momentum going," Pope said. "Cathi has done a wonderful job of letting Tom and Teri call the shots and run the show. They've done a nice job with it. They've got a good model and they've been careful not to disturb the model."
One of his roles, Pope said, is to make sure the company is exploring options for growth, and not settling for modest growth.
"This is still Bob's dream and it's being tweaked as we go," Pope said. "They've got something that works and they're modifying it only to improve it. They've stayed nicely focused."