Karl Speak has kept his company small but his thinking big while building Brand Tool Box, his Minneapolis-based consulting and training firm, into a global leader in helping companies mold brands that engage employees and align them with customers.

Speak refers to his brand-management breakthrough as "internal brand-building'' but he emphasizes that it involves company culture and organizational development more than logos, labels or marketing campaigns.

Since he launched Brand Tool Box three decades ago, Speak has developed internal brand-building programs with companies in 23 countries. Speak and the more than 125 independent trainers he has certified have trained tens of thousands of employees to develop a strong personal brand that can help them and their company achieve more. Clients have included such local giants as 3M, Target and Cargill as well as IBM, Sony and the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.

Speak said he believes his work has resulted in a broader practical understanding of brand as a part of business strategy.

"I am hopeful that that will be my contribution to the discipline, expanding brand from a niche part of marketing, i.e. advertising, to be an organizational development construct that passionately connects employees to customers," Speak said.

Speak's conclusion that strong corporate brands stem from healthy company cultures coincided with parallel work on helping employees develop personal brands. Internal brand-building seeks to align organizational and personal brands to benefit customers, employees and the company.

"The strength of a corporate brand is the sum total of all the personal brands in the organization,'' Speak said. "The more of those that are passionate about the company, then they deliver more effectively on what matters to the customer, and therefore the corporate brand grows."

At 62, Smith is not about to abandon his founding commitment to his brand — keeping his company a small, expert organization. Speak has pursued controlled growth of his company, which has five employees, reaching his target of roughly $1 million in revenue in recent years.

But to reach a broader audience, Speak is preparing to license his Brand Tool Box curriculum to larger professional-services companies that will conduct internal brand-building programs with their clients. Speak is negotiating distribution agreements with three local companies that he hopes will be in place by year-end. Brand Tool Box would run employees from those companies through its 2.5-day course to certify them as internal brand-building trainers.

"That's the only way we're going to make a bigger impact, to get our stuff to more companies," Speak said.

Speak went into consulting after leaving Control Data, where the former Chicago grain trader ran a data-services business that sold marketing data to companies nationally. "As much success as I enjoyed in a big company, I'm not a big-company guy," Speak said. "I'm more independent."

He began writing his first brand training course after a yearlong assignment with Wilson Learning piqued his interest in corporate training.

Speak's internal brand-building helped define the "essence of Ecumen," one of the country's largest nonprofit providers of senior housing and aging services, according to Eric Schubert, vice president of communications and public affairs at the Shore­view-based organization.

"What we love about Karl is he looks at brand very holistically, from the inside out," Schubert said. "It's built on substance and fact, it's not a campaign. The return is we strongly know who we are and we very much are able to illustrate for people what our culture is."

Speak's work avoids the ambiguity that can come with some consulting on brand or culture, said Steve Weiss, former President and COO at Capella University in Minneapolis.

"There are organizations with great intent or theory on brand," Weiss said. "Karl does great there but [his internal brand building] is the vehicle that allows you to cross the chasm to ­practice and implementation that's going to make it come to life."

The expert says: Michael Porter, director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, likened Speak's internal brand-building training to an insurance policy against the risk of part of an organization communicating something that is off-brand.

"Maybe you've done a good job of building a culture but he's offering an opportunity to button things down for the good companies and bring things up to speed for those that are struggling," Porter said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.