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This CEO is rock-steady

AlphaGraphics chief knows business from many angles

Published: Sunday, March 27 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

AlphaGraphics President Kevin Cushing believes a key to his own business is making sure that his customers succeed in their businesses.

Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

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.

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