If you're in a meeting with Kevin Cushing and he tosses a rock in your direction, don't duck.

He's not trying to hurt you. He just wants to hear your ideas.

Cushing, president and chief executive officer of Salt Lake-based AlphaGraphics Inc., keeps a small, oval rock featuring a painted Kokopelli on the table in his office, and he takes rocks with him when he's visiting the company's approximately 270 franchise owners.

He picked up the tradition at one of his first jobs. When he and colleagues convened a meeting, they would pass a rock around. The person with the rock had the floor, Cushing said, ensuring that even quieter folks would be heard.

That's important, he said, because no one — not even the CEO of a company — is all-knowing.

"One of my greatest strengths is I know that I don't know (everything)," Cushing said.

"Never be too proud to ask. . . . I have used that probably as much as anything I've learned from anybody in my career."

That's why another item on his office table is a paperweight etched with a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "If I only had 60 minutes to solve a problem, I would spend the first 55 minutes trying to understand the right question."

That ethic has helped Cushing grow from a Chicago boy with an interest in business to a veteran of the corporate world who has led several companies.

While he was growing up in the Windy City, he said, his parents were friends with a successful businessman who often asked Cushing what he wanted to do with his life.

"I said own my own business and run a company," Cushing said.

He started down that path in college. During his senior year at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona, he and some buddies ran the campus pub. Cushing loved managing the pub, and that fed his desire to make a living in business.

Then, a college professor took an interest in him and fueled Cushing's dreams even more.

That professor, Robert Taylor, is now a retired Catholic priest living in Sioux Falls, S.D. He said Cushing always had a keen mind and the innate ability to size up a situation quickly.

"I don't know where he gets it, but he has it," Taylor said. "He reads people real well."

Cushing took philosophy courses from Taylor, well outside the mainstream business curriculum. And that helped make Cushing a well-rounded person, Taylor said.

"I always encouraged these guys, open your eyes and open your visions to the world out there," Taylor said. "It's not all what happens in the office. You've got to be a well-rounded and well-integrated person."

He said he saw those traits in Cushing, as well as a strong competitive spirit and generous nature. So he put Cushing in touch with Roger Peters at Terratron Inc., a company that owned fast-food restaurants and small shopping centers.

"At that time, I was the head of a retirement bureau, and we made a lot of investments with Terratron," Taylor said. "So what I would do every year was handpick people who could go to work for Terratron who had special expertise or qualities about them or were gifted in one way or the other."

Cushing took the opportunity and ran with it, learning all he could while working various areas of the business. But when the early 1980s brought a downturn in the national economy, he decided to go back to school for his MBA.

He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1982, and while his classmates accepted offers from big corporations, Cushing decided to go back to Terratron. It was an unusual move, he said, but he wanted the breadth of experience that a smaller business could provide.

"It was a great blessing for me," Cushing said. "Our owner . . . was a great visionary and businessman."

A few years later, Cushing said, Terratron officials learned of some Utah restaurants that had been converted to the Hardee's brand. The owners were struggling, so Terratron came in, restructured deals with lenders and started running the restaurants.

Terratron's entry into the Utah market meant Cushing and his young family had to move here, too. They arrived in 1984.

"When you grew up in the Midwest like I did, Salt Lake City seems a long way away," he said.

But he and his family soon became active in the community, supporting causes like Special Olympics, and Utah became home.

"For me and Jill and our kids, it was probably the most positive experience our family had," Cushing said.

As his family enjoyed life in Utah, Cushing was helping Terratron grow from a small company with seven restaurants to one that ran 80.

In 1994, Cushing decided he was ready for a new challenge in a different industry. His attention was drawn by AlphaGraphics, a printing and communications company that focuses on small and mid-size businesses.

AlphaGraphics had a good reputation as a vendor for Terratron, Cushing said, and he knew a franchise owner in Salt Lake City. That owner put Cushing in touch with other owners and members of the corporate staff at the company's headquarters in Tucson, Ariz.

"I was very impressed by the backgrounds these people had," Cushing said. "They could have done anything with the next stage of their careers," and they chose AlphaGraphics.

Salt Lake City already had several AlphaGraphics operations, he said, so in 1995 he and his family reluctantly left to open a new franchise in the untested market of Minneapolis.

"We hired a great group of people . . . and we won a lot of business," Cushing said. "Three years later, we opened another location in suburban Minneapolis."

He still owns those two stores with a partner. But in 2004, his career and life took another turn.

AlphaGraphics needed a new CEO, and Cushing was asked to fill the post. He took the reins of the company on June 8, 2004, and moved back to Salt Lake City, which had become the new home for the company's headquarters in 2001.

The move was a difficult one again, this time because Cushing's two oldest sons were staying behind in Minnesota to go to school.

"Most of the time, the kids leave the nest," Cushing said. "This time, the nest left the kids."

As he dealt with the transition of moving to the corporate office, he said, he discovered that his experience as an AlphaGraphics franchise owner was beneficial.

"It helps in terms of credibility with (other AlphaGraphics) owners," he said. "They know I have walked in the same shoes they wear to work every day."

The 65 to 70 members of the headquarters staff, housed in the historic Brooks Arcade Building at 268 S. State, know they can use Cushing as a filter for new ideas, he said. And he remembers that, when you run a small business, how you serve clients determines whether you can support your family.

"What I probably get the biggest kick about in this role . . . is that we come to work every day with the sole purpose of helping people succeed in their business," he said.

"I have the opportunity right now basically to lead 280 of my good friends. I'm driven by the mission of making AlphaGraphics a good part of their lives."

While his sphere of influence was smaller at his own AlphaGraphics stores, Cushing said, he did enjoy feeling like he was in the "miracles business." He misses the satisfaction of seeing the relief on a client's face as he tells her that a seemingly impossible job will be done on time.

But the CEO position has satisfactions of its own, and among them is helping the company grow. For example, Cushing said AlphaGraphics' Utah operations had a "very healthy" 14.95 percent increase in business in 2004 over 2003.

For AlphaGraphics as a whole, Cushing said he would like to see the addition of 30 or 40 locations every year. It may take a couple of years to ramp up to that level, he said, but new initiatives and technology should make it possible, even in the company's extremely competitive business sector.

His determination to drive AlphaGraphics' growth rests on the foundation built by mentors like Taylor and Peters, as well as his parents, Cushing said — and he hopes to pass those lessons on to his family.

"Any reflective business person will sometimes catch themselves going to extra lengths for the business that they don't take for their family or themselves," he said. "The business problems are rarely fatal or can't wait. . . .

"I would hope that my kids (now aged 13-21) will look back on their time growing up and remember that they came from a loving household . . . and that they had a fun time growing up."

And, chances are, they'll always remember to have a few rocks handy.

E-mail: gkratz@desnews.com