Kara DiPietro | Crain's Baltimore

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kara DiPietro

  • HMC Inc. CEO Kara DiPietro, left, with U.S. Small Business Administration Director Linda McMahon. | Photo provided by Kara DiPietro

    HMC Inc. CEO Kara DiPietro, left, with U.S. Small Business Administration Director Linda McMahon. | Photo provided by Kara DiPietro

Background:  

Founded in 1989, HMC is a commercial custom millwork manufacturing and food service design firm, and has worked with some of the country’s largest retail brands, hospitals, universities and corporations. The company has offices in Los Angeles and Columbia, Maryland. Kara DiPietro was recently named Maryland’s Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The Mistake:

I was having anxiety about this, thinking, “How do I pick one mistake?” So much of your time spent as a leader in a business is through trial and error. Mistakes are really like your conduit to growth.

Something I struggle with is trying to be everything to everyone. Saying no when it doesn’t align with your core competency is a mistake that I made, and one that I recognize.

As a business leader, you have the responsibility of keeping the company profitable, and you’re constantly on the new business track. Our company designs and builds food service facilities. That’s our core competency, and we’re really good at designing food operations for corporations, or government facilities, or any place that’s serving thousands of meals on a daily basis. But it’s so tempting to want to offer more services so that you have a better chance of hitting more people.

We’re food service designers, but last year I thought, “Why do we have to just be food service designers? Why don’t we hire designers with lots of different capabilities, then we can design anything.”

So we hired three to four people to join our interior design department, and they had skillsets and experiences in different facets — spas, hotels, hospitality, and corporate office building — versus just cafeteria or food service.

But when you expand or add to your list of services offered, you have to expand your budgets. If we’re going to design spas, we have to stay in the know with the trends in spas, and spend money on training for employees. Our overhead was extremely high. We’re known as a food service design build firm, we weren’t known as a firm that designs and builds spas. We had to spend a lot of time creating a business plan from scratch, like we were a startup company.

When you’re starting something new it takes a while to gain momentum, new clients, new projects, etc., so you end up financing that while trying to get up and running. You’re spending money and not necessarily making money, and it strains the overall company budget. From a time perspective and a fiscal perspective, the more services you offer, the more difficult it is to be efficient with your spending.

We decided that this was not the best route for the company to take. While we were hopeful that this would increase our business, it was better for us to get back to what we were good at, and we needed to let people go.

Mistakes are really like your conduit to growth.

The Lesson:

It’s really important to be able to figure out what the best direction would be and to follow that, rather than continuing to try to force something to work. It’s so tempting to want to say yes, we can do anything, but rather than establishing yourself as an expert, you end up diluting your message a little bit, and diluting your ability to be the best in your field. It takes constant effort to remember that while we can do that, we’re probably not the best at it, and let’s just say no, because there might be a better-fitting opportunity down the road.

We had to reestablish and reorganize ourselves internally to get back to our core, and that included letting people go. Hiring and firing is a very hard decision. There’s a saying, “Hire slow and fire fast.” People’s lives are valuable, and we very much appreciate each other at our company.

A lot of leaders have a problem acknowledging that they were wrong or they made a mistake, or admitting that something wasn’t such a good idea. It’s never fun to have to admit that you were wrong, and in some cases being wrong is going to impact someone negatively. While everyone in the end is hopefully going to learn a lesson, getting to the end is difficult.

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