This month's cover story on Van Meter Industrial's Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP), “Fields of Opportunities,” (page 18), explores how the power of new ideas can dramatically affect a company's financial fortunes. The ESOP gives Van Meter's employees a sense of their ownership in the company, because they see an increase in their ESOP shares when someone comes up with a new cost-saving or sales-building idea. Van Meter estimates for every idea that produces a $10,000 increase in sales or decrease in costs, there's a 2-cent increase in the ESOP's stock payment.

The direct financial implications of new ideas at Van Meter and other ESOPs is indeed a powerful motivator for employees. But managers must keep the pipeline of new ideas flowing from their most valuable in-house resource — employees. To tap into these ideas, you must create opportunities for brainstorming.

Corporate retreats are tops for setting long-term strategy, but it's tough to get your key personnel away from the office for these more than once a year.

Lunch and learns always work great for product training. But you can use them for brainstorming sessions, too. Make these meetings challenging but fun. To get the ideas flowing, break employees into small groups, and ask each group to brainstorm on some solutions for a company concern. After the groups present their ideas at an all-company meeting, have a drawing for prizes for each group. Prizes could be a group activity such as a catered group lunch, or a company-sponsored night out at the ballpark, bowling alley or movies.

Attending industry conferences may not be too exciting for some of your company's senior executives with heavy travel schedules, but for younger employees on the fast-track who haven't traveled much, it's a big deal. If they work the conference properly, the ideas they get from seminar programs and contacts they make at networking functions can easily pay for their travel expenses. Just getting out of the office and meeting other young people in the business who have similar challenges will create some experiences they can build on throughout their careers. It's one of the reason the YET (Your Emerging Talent) organization developed by the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, has been so popular over the years.

For your more seasoned executives, you may want to check out the 2006 Electrical Industry Marketing Conference (EIMC). At this year's meeting, more than 80 electrical distributors, electrical manufacturers and independent manufacturers' reps pondered the cost of persuasion, effective product launches, customer evaluation and retention, strategic marketing strategies, e-business and a host of other marketing topics. I believe everyone at the conference, from senior executives with advanced marketing degrees to marketing directors and other electrical folks of all stripes, came away with a few new ideas from the experience.

Surfing the Web can help you find some best practices on brainstorming. Check out www.business2.com for some insight into creating a fertile environment for brainstorming.

The Master of New Ideas

When it comes to the business of new ideas, who better to listen to than Thomas Edison, who held 1,093 patents and invented the phonograph, motion-picture camera, mimeograph, electrical distribution system, storage battery, and developed the first practical incandescent lamp? A few of his thoughts may help you kick off your next brainstorming session:

“Genius is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration.”

“I readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off.”

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”