Komejan Promotes 'Culture'

December 12, 2007
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HOLLAND — Maryam Komejan believes that leveraging people in a positive way has to become a skill set for companies that intend to compete in a tough global market.

Komejan has more than 25 years of international executive management experience, most of which she gained in various top-level positions with Donnelly Corp., where she learned how to create a positive, high-performance corporate culture. She applies that know-how today as CEO and managing director of The Zeika Group, a consulting firm that offers strategic planning, senior executive coaching/management development, training and hands-on transition management services to companies that need to develop new strategic initiatives in order to adapt to change.

Language and culture and other people's points of view have always been an important part of Komejan's life. She has a strong international background by birth: Her father was from Russia, her mother from Europe, and she herself was born overseas. She is bilingual in English and German.

Komejan started college at Michigan State University with the intention of becoming a Russian interpreter, then transferred to Hope College where she earned a degree in business administration instead. Years later she earned a master's degree in management from Aquinas College.

"I thought I could apply my interest in people to business," she recalled. "I ended up taking every economics course I possibly could. To me economics was about expectations — what people anticipate in terms of the stock market and products. As I saw it, economics and psychology were tightly bound together, so business and people became inseparable to me."

She began her career as assistant director of admissions at Hope College, where she worked for four years, then went to work briefly as office and claims manager of Holland-Grand Rapids Insurance Agency.

She was hired by Donnelly Corp. in 1979 to do project work for then-Chairman and CEO John Donnelly Sr. Komejan said Donnelly focused on her potential rather than her resume. He looked at her interests, her attitude, her talent and her character makeup. He was in the habit of looking for "clay" in his employees — smart people he could invest in and adapt to his company, she said. Komejan was mentored by Donnelly, who ran the company for 50 years and established its unique culture. 

"It was just a stroke of absolute luck," Komejan recalled. "He was so broad in his thinking. He just basically said, 'I'm going to give you whatever you need under the sun and we'll see how far you can go.' Because of his influence, when I look at resumes, I look at the whole person and how their talent can be applied in the broadest possible sense to serve the best interests of the company and the best interests of the employee at the same time."

Komejan's first project was producing Donnelly Corp.'s annual report, an activity she continued after being promoted to the position of project and risk manager for the office of the chairman. With that promotion in 1979, and with each subsequent promotion — in 1985, 1993 and 1995 —  Komejan took on increasing executive responsibilities in the areas of communications and public relations, safety and environmental programs, risk management, capital expenditures, human resources and legal and board issues.

She established a corporate image program and developed and implemented an investor relations program when the corporation went public, serving 11 years as the investor relations contact for Wall Street. Komejan developed a restructuring business plan for Donnelly's global HR function, performed due diligence pertaining to European acquisitions, led IT conversion programs in Europe, led executive searches for national and international management positions, built relationships with European employees, and acted as interim COO for European operations during the transition period. The list goes on.

Komejan said she gained a lot of human resources experience because Donnelly was a very unusual company that became renowned for taking the practice of how to manage people well beyond the norm. Donnelly has been recognized as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America and for being among the Top 10 domestic companies with positive work cultures.

"We went way into the area of experimental teamwork and all that — with how you manage the human side," Komejan said. "You manage it for productivity. When we became much more international, we had to figure out how to do that in a foreign environment. I think they felt I had the skills to do that."

Komejan is most proud of the work Donnelly did globally on "the human side." Donnelly was not a union company in North America because of its culture, but in other countries, unions are a normal way to do business and are supported in many ways by those governments, she explained. She did a lot of work with the labor unions in Europe, and thought it was "very extraordinary" that Donnelly was able to get the same kind of participation and cooperation in foreign environments that it did in North America. 

"My years in that company were fabulous. I will forever be grateful because I learned things I couldn't have learned anywhere else," she remarked. "From the minute I was hired at Donnelly to the time that I left 22 years later, I sat right next to the CEO my entire career, and it was enormously beneficial to see how all the pieces come together and how to keep them in balance."

The company had $30 million in annual revenues when she started and $1 billion by the time she left. Prior to the sale of Donnelly to Magna International in 2002, Komejan decided to make a career change. She established The Zeika Group that same year and felt "supremely confident" about the move. She and her five employees work with companies in the $30 million to $100 million range. Zeika Group projects have included, among others: training high-potential leaders for a security company; developing a strategic plan for a utility; developing a management alignment plan for a manufacturer; developing a compensation system for a publishing company; and developing an all-new location, work force, management operating systems and culture for a heavy manufacturer.   

As Komejan sees it, culture is the operating system that allows a company to do its work. It isn't about creating an enjoyable place to work — that's the end result. The focus is on creating a cohesive environment in which employees can get work done in the most productive way possible. In a "poor" corporate culture, work doesn't get done very well, which can lead to a company's demise.

"That's what motivates me, because a lot of people's jobs and lives and the economic health of West Michigan is on the line" Komejan said. "When companies start to fall, there are consequences for the employees, the owners and for the entire community that's relying on the company to be successful and provide a good tax base."

Culture is one of the most accessible tools companies have in improving their competitive edge, Komejan concluded. A powerful and aligned culture, she said, will increase productivity at least 10 percent and perhaps considerably more.

"Given the size of the investment that companies have in people, this kind of ROI should not be ignored — especially when it is within our sphere of influence."     

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