Underdog NYC Interview with CEO, Bram Hechtkopf
As CEO of one of the fastest-growing companies in the Tampa Bay area, Bram’s leadership mantra is to continually define, redefine, and evolve in order to attract and retain world-class clients and the innovative talent it requires to do so. He is driven by not only constantly innovating the proprietary technology that serves as the company’s differentiator, but also the workplace and Kobie culture itself.
Bram’s focus is on unparalleled customer experience – whether with consumers of the brands Kobie manages, or with clients working directly with the Kobie team – day in, day out. Client services, operations, technology, creative, analytics – Kobie’s expert team members are focused on making clients successful and their program investments profitable.
Why recognizable name brands choose to work with Kobie goes beyond the company’s technology and innovative approach to marketing, to a sentiment encapsulated in their tagline: Experience Loyalty. Centered on delivering the best loyalty experience in the industry, this statement encompasses every interaction customers have with Kobie products and services. This includes optimizing every channel a brand engages in, with award-winning creative and ongoing marketing management – in their voice, with their look and per their guidelines, across diverse industries and targeting a wide range of audiences.
But most importantly, Experiencing Loyalty is about how Kobie treats its team members, any company’s most-important asset. The company touts an enormously talented group of individuals, across a spectrum of skillsets, and Bram strives to create a culture that drives innovation, leadership, collaboration, stellar work, and of course, fun. It’s a large reason why clients love working with Kobie. For over 15 years, following in the footsteps of Kobie’s founder, Jared Hechtkopf, Bram continues to not only meet but exceed his father’s vision and expectations.
Bram received his Bachelor of Business Administration degree with honors from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University with a concentration in marketing and information technology. Today, in his role as CEO, he describes the excitement of Kobie’s continued growth as, “We’re growing so fast it’s like we’re building the car while we’re racing it! And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Tell me about your early career.
My early career started right out of high school working for Vector Marketing selling Cutco knives – I think I sold about $10,000 in two months at age 16. The next summer they recruited me to be the assistant manager; to run an office, recruit and train a team – and my sophomore year of college, I opened my own office in Sarasota, FL, again recruiting and training a team. I worked so hard – 80 to 100 hours a week over the course of the summer and learned amazing skills on management, leadership, and training. I learned the value of excessive hard work and perseverance, and I also learned that if I was ever to work that many hours again, I was going to do it for myself.
So after business school, I went to Manhattan because I felt like the job experience there would be different than any other city – broad industries and large successful companies – and consulting would be the best way to get that experience. For five years I was a compensation consultant, where I worked with some of the world’s most recognized brands, working with the boards, compensation committees, and executives aligning pay and performance. I learned a ton, worked with some amazing organizations and some great business minds that taught me about thoroughness and attention to detail.
How did the concept for Kobie come about?
Kobie was started as a direct marketing agency, essentially leveraging customer data to drive some level of personalized marketing. Around 1995, we got involved with a Fortune 100 wireless company who was starting a loyalty program tied to a co-brand credit card – we developed our own technology platform and launched a program for that brand which is now a big part of Verizon. And more financial services clients and retail clients followed on the loyalty wagon, so we made the natural evolution from a direct marketing agency to a loyalty marketing company responding to the market and our clients’ needs.
When I first joined Kobie, we were about 30 people trying to just stabilize our loyalty program clients, and the first year was about testing and plotting our path for our future. It was then that we decided to double down and invest in technology to drive our growth. We hired a new executive team and geared up for growth with a more sustainable business model. We could see that there was a future in driving relationships with our clients’ customers through loyalty solutions. Fast forward to today, we’re 500 team members strong, and we’re now the loyalty marketing company for many of the world’s most successful brands.
What was your marketing strategy?
Our initial marketing strategy was entirely focused on loyalty. It was all about our tagline of “keeping your customers loyal.” And our whole methodology was helping businesses attract, retain, and incentivize their best customers. Which isn’t that different than what it is today, but now we focus on running better loyalty programs by deepening both the emotional and behavioral connections.
A few years ago, we expanded our thinking around Experience Loyalty. This new focus is all about the lens of loyalty as an enterprise strategy for how we treat our clients, their customers, and as important our own team members. Our new purpose and focus is to enable loyalty relationships.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Interestingly, not that fast. Our growth was pretty clunky early on – we would pick up a client or two every year, but these were also big clients. It wasn’t until we won a very large piece of business from a financial services company that it started picking up exponentially. It’s really been the last two years where our growth has exploded, growing from about 180 team members to over 500.
How do you define success?
There are four ways I define success:
1) Doing work that makes us proud
2) Driving a better customer experience for our clients’ customers
3) Creating a world-class, fun and energizing work environment with a “teammates first” philosophy
4) Continuing to grow and make some money along the way
What is the key to success?
The key to success is building a culture that energizes our people and aligns them against your purpose.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
50% of success is just showing up – there is no silver bullet to any of this stuff – you need to show up, work hard, and grind it out every day. Hire great people who create a lot of positive energy and positive momentum, and don’t be afraid of hiring people who are better, smarter, and faster. Because at the end of the day, we’re in the people business. We rely on our team members to do great work for our clients.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Good is the enemy of great.” – Jim Collins
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzsky
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.” – Ray Kroc (originally from Calvin Coolidge)
“The work fits the time allotted.” – a take on the Parkinson’s Law (that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”)
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Grit. The stick-to-it-ness keeps me going. It’s a combination of fear of failure, drive, and determination to win and be successful. Just wanting to grow, to be successful, and create something that’s meaningful and lasting for our team members, and clients. Sheer resourcefulness drives me to figure out a way to get things done and keep moving forward. And, not taking “no” for an answer until you’ve exhausted every potential outcome. Adversity makes the job fun and challenging and there’s always something new.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Think big. But think big while understanding the appropriate steps. It’s awesome to have dreams and goals, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. I love the analogy from Jim Collins of “turning a giant flywheel” – meaning as you watch things day to day, you don’t see the progress, but suddenly you look back over ten years and you’re like, “Wow, we grew ten-fold, how did that happen?” It’s very difficult to go from like zero to 100, really quick – unless you’re Drake.
2) Hire, recruit, and delegate to people who are better than you.
3) Do things to help maintain your sanity to clear your mind.
4) Maintain the right balance of perseverance and resourcefulness with an analytical objective reality.
5) Seize the opportunity.
This interview was originally featured on Underdog NYC, interview conducted by Jason Navallo: http://underdog.nyc/bram-hechtkopf