Lynne Thompson

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:48

Controlling disability claims

There are plenty of disability management coordinators who would gladly trade places with Helen Simpson.

She says the overwhelming majority of disability claims that land on her desk at the Akron headquarters of FirstMerit Bank are pregnancies. The company averages a mere 65 injuries a year among its 3,500 employees, approximately 80 percent of whom Simpson estimates are women.

Many of those mishaps are relatively minor — slips and falls that result in a broken ankle or wrist, or back strains from lifting coin and cash.

“That sounds so funny,” she admits with a chuckle. “But these tellers are out on the front line, and they have to pick up their money at least twice a day and put it in their teller drawers. Those things can weigh 25 to 35 pounds.”

But the way the bank once handled injuries and health conditions that kept employees at home was no laughing matter. Paid leave was all too often prescribed not by a doctor, but at the discretion of the bank president responsible for that employee’s branch. An employee supervised by a more lenient bank president might get more time off than an employee at another branch suffering from the same malady.

Simpson admits some leaves were granted without confirming the required length of time off stated by the employee. The practices left FirstMerit vulnerable to legal liability as well as poor morale.

“We needed a standardized, centralized way of making sure we were in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act, to centralize and standardize how we applied these policies and procedures in law throughout our corporation,” Simpson says. “A person in Cleveland would be treated essentially the same as a person in Medina.

“Along with that, we wanted to control absenteeism. We’d have people off work, we didn’t know why or where, and we were paying them.”

In mid-1996, Simpson suggested the bank utilize disability management services offered by Premier Comp, based in Fairlawn, which is the managed workers’ compensation plan of HomeTown Health Network of Massillon. Together they began approaching disability cases using the same techniques traditionally applied to workers’ compensation claims: early intervention, intensive, hands-on case management, continued contact with the employee and light-duty/transitional work assignments that return the employee to the workplace.

“The main focus of disability management is to limit the amount of time that the employee is off work,” Simpson explains. “It’s all about an early, safe return to work.”

A pregnant employee, for example, would be asked to notify her supervisor as soon as she finds out she is expecting. The supervisor notifies FirstMerit’s nurse case manager, who in turn calls the employee at least every 30 days until the delivery. According to Simpson, the chats can identify problems that, if left untreated, could develop into unnecessary complications.

In the meantime, the mother-to-be — a teller, for example — might be offered a desk job that would keep her off her feet.

Case managers were nothing new to Simpson, who from time to time hired them on an as-needed basis to help her handle claims. But the first full-time case manager the bank employed didn’t see the value, for example, in calling pregnant employees right before they went on maternity leave. When Premier Comp director Stephen Elkins stopped to make a sales call, she discovered they shared the same philosophies regarding active case management.

“We both had the commitment and the energy, not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk,” she says.

Premier Comp provided the bank with a nurse case manager, Jean Phillips, who spends her 28-hour workweek at FirstMerit’s Akron headquarters handling both workers’ compensation and nonoccupational disability claims. A good deal of Phillips’ time, Simpson says, is spent on the telephone talking to supervisors and workers employed at the bank’s 188 branches.

She also helped Simpson implement a comprehensive disability management program, traveling to branches and explaining forms and procedures designed to collect the information essential to approving or denying a claim.

“Frankly, the procedures just grew out of folly,” Simpson says.

Premier Comp also helped establish a network of health care providers to handle on-the-job injuries. (Simpson stresses that employees are encouraged, not required, to use these providers, which are under contract to see them immediately.) Instead of pulling a network “off the shelf,” Elkins says Premier Comp helped Simpson create a roster that satisfied the bank’s specific needs.

“FirstMerit being a banking organization with many different branches, we contracted and established relationships with different providers that are near each of those branches so that they would understand FirstMerit — so that when someone was injured or ill, they could provide quality, timely medical services.”

Elkins declined to quote what Premier Comp charges for such customized services, explaining that costs differ from client to client.

“What FirstMerit has may or may not be what Company B gets,” he says. “Every company has a different management style. Every company has different goals.”

He’ll only divulge that fees are “somewhat in line” with the average amount U.S. companies dole out for disability management services. That price tag, he says, is about 1 percent of the 8 percent of payroll U.S. companies spend annually on workers’ compensation and disability claims — figures he quotes from a 1998 national study presented earlier this year in Akron at a Ohio Rehabilitation Association conference.

“For $1 invested in disability case management, $96 in savings can be attributed to that,” he adds.

Simpson, too, is reluctant to speak in terms of dollars and cents. Instead, she interprets savings in calendar days missed by employees: She says FirstMerit saved 10,466 days during the first nine months of 1999 alone.

“That translates into almost 29 years,” she says.

Simpson says Premier Comp’s disability management program has generally been well received by employees.

“Most people want to work,” she says.

Phillips does everything from answer garden-variety health questions to take blood pressure readings for a worker suffering from hypertension. More important, the nurse case manager acts as an advocate for the employee as well as the employer, functioning as a liaison between an injured/sick worker and his or her doctor and supervisor.

Indeed, Phillips’ presence is especially helpful when a hard-nosed boss doesn’t understand, say, why a woman can only work half-days during a difficult pregnancy or a cancer patient’s attendance may be erratic during chemotherapy.

“I could tell a manager, ‘So-and-so’s not feeling well, they’re unable to come in, and it’s necessary for them to be off,’” Simpson says. “They’ll argue with me, whereas they will not argue with the nurse. Because of confidentiality, ignorance is bliss all the way around.

“The nurse case manager serves as the trusted intermediary.”

How to reach: Premier Comp: (330) 666-6757

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Sharing secrets

Two months ago, Ken Roberts, owner of KM Quality Management Inc., noticed an interesting trend among the tenants who were leasing office space at Canal Place.

“Unbeknownst to us, we were known as the Internet Hotel of Akron,” says Canal Place marketing director Alice Hall, who counts a whopping 15 telecommunications companies lodging in the downtown sports/retail/office complex.

“One of the reasons (telecommunications companies) do like Canal Place is that we have the ceiling heights and can carry the floor loads,” she explains. “We have several cable lines coming into Canal Place. And, of course, one company attracts another company.”

Hall credits Roberts with starting the Canal Place Technology Group, a fledgling association formed primarily to promote networking among resident telecommunications companies, ranging from the Internet Association Corp., a 20-employee concern that develops private online communities, to long-distance provider Cable & Wireless USA’s regional technical operations center. Such trade groups are still a surprising rarity in this rapidly growing industry, according to Don Philabaum, IAC president and CEO.

The group met for the first time in March, and members toured each others’ facilities in early April. Dan Campese, lead technician at Cable & Wireless’ Canal Place location, says the tour turned out to be a progressive lesson in computer hardware and software solutions.

Many members, for example, were impressed with Cable & Wireless’ raised computer floor, rack systems and power back-up systems. Campese, in turn, was intrigued with how one member company linked two independent computer systems with a third.

And Philabaum says visitors to IAC were taken with a cutting-edge product that allows companies to conduct “interactive tours” of their facilities on the Web.

Contrary to what some may think, the exercise was hardly a matter of letting the fox into the corporate henhouse.

“You don’t see any marketing materials that are going to tip off the competition,” Philabaum quips.

Indeed, he can’t think of a single rival for IAC clients on the current membership roster.

“There’s a diversified set of companies involved in the group,” Campese confirms. “There could be some partnerships.”

He envisions members recommending one another to their respective customers and banding together to become a one-stop shopping source for Internet services.

“By doing that, you’re well prepared to answer potential customers’ questions or service needs, just by being aware of what’s here locally,” he adds. “It’s like that old saying: You scratch my back. I’ll scratch yours.”

Hall says Canal Place and KM Quality Management officials are planing to open the group to nonresident Internet entrepreneurs and new media businesses so they care share their problems and successes with each other, as well as with interested members of the general public.

How to reach: Don Philabaum, IAC, (800) 968-6004

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:40

Simple success

Bill Schiltz is not a boastful man.

“I consider myself a bus driver sometimes,” says the mild-mannered, 59-year-old chairman and CEO of Liquid Control Corp. when asked to expound on the success of his company. “I’m the guy that points the bus, and a whole lot of other people who are very smart have gotten on the bus. They’re the ones who have really helped to make the business grow. I can’t sit here and take the credit.”

It is not surprising, then, that his keys to success — “a menu of things that have to blend together” — are simple, common-sense practices you don’t have to attend Harvard Business School to understand or apply. The results, however, are no less impressive. In the 25 years since Schiltz and two former partners started Liquid Control, a North Canton designer and builder of resin metering, mixing and dispensing machinery for the electronics, automotive, general assembly and composites industries, the business has spawned one new company and purchased two others. Today the company employs 165 people at facilities in North Canton, Indianapolis and Stuart, Fla.

The first item on Schiltz’s “menu of success” is “surround yourself with knowledgeable people.”

“This means affiliating yourself with people that know more about nearly everything than you do, then giving them the support to run with their ideas,” he says.

When asked why some seem to balk at hiring anyone who is as smart as or smarter than they are — let alone providing them with the authority to make a decision — Schiltz replies, “They’re nuts.

“If a manager of a department is hiring somebody, I tell them, ‘Try and find somebody who’s going to take your job. When they take your job, you move up. If you hire somebody who can’t take your job, you’re stuck,’” he says.

Setting goals is also crucial. Schiltz insists that anything can be accomplished by simply taking one step at a time.

“People will look at something and say that it’s just too much to do,” he says. “But it’s just amazing how, if you take that first step and accomplish something, all of a sudden things start to fall in place.”

Those precious first steps, he adds, are what many people commonly mistake for luck.

“You’re gonna have some losers, and you’re gonna have some things that don’t work right,” he says.

But the chances for success increase with the number of first steps taken.

That take-one-step-at-a-time philosophy was particularly helpful to Schiltz during Liquid Control’s early days, when he was functioning as the company’s vice president of sales, lab director, technical director and chief mechanic. He remembers a time when he’d leave for work at 6 each morning and return around 10 each night.

Saturdays were spent at the office; Sundays were spent doing paperwork at home. Any free time was devoted to his wife and children. Sacrificing personal time was (and still is) necessary to complete all the tasks on his to-do list.

“In fact, it becomes difficult to separate personal time and business time because you are generally solving problems or coming up with solutions 24 hours a day,” he says.

During his time as a technical director and chief mechanic, Schiltz learned the importance of starting every day in an orderly environment. After setting up equipment for a demonstration the next morning, he’d go home without tidying his work area — a chore he was inevitably forced to quickly complete before prospective customers arrived.

“I was totally despondent at one point,” he admits. “I thought, ‘I’m going the wrong way. I’m not growing.’”

He eventually realized, however, that the mess was affecting his mood. The simple act of putting the tools in a tool box and cleaning the floor at the end of the day, no matter how late the hour, gave him a surprising sense of closure.

“When you walk in the next day, your attitude is entirely different,” he says. “You start again. Otherwise, it all runs together.”

It is tenacity, of course, that drives individuals to strive for the impossible, to work evenings and weekends, even to sweep a floor late at night. Schiltz, who earned the nickname “Bulldog” as 140-pound road-crew laborer during his sophomore year of college, still defines “done” as “when you’re successful.”

“When I see something that I think can happen, I get into it, and I won’t stop, even when other people say, ‘You can’t do it,’” he declares. “Something tells me that it’s worth pursuing.”

Is there a point, however, when Schiltz finally does give up?

“I can’t think of what it is,” he replies. How to reach: Liquid Control, (330) 494-1313

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

From paper to practice

History dictated that Chris Paxos would make a name for himself in the metal-finishing business.

The 27-year-old University of Akron graduate began his career as a third-grader, when he started working summers as a laborer in his father Nick’s company, Hercules Polishing & Plating in Canton.

“In working there, I learned the business, learned how the internal workings went, both out in the plant and throughout the company,” he says.

The education continued at another plating company, Lustrous Metal Coatings, where he worked with his brother during high school and college.

But Paxos’ long apprenticeship in the family business isn’t the only reason for the success of his own Canton concern, Precision Powder Coating Inc., which cuts, cleans, coats and heat treats bar-stock steel for the domestic automobile and European/Asian rapid rail industries. He attributes his company’s ability to consistently double sales annually during its five-year run to its 50 employees and their ability to execute a business plan. At PPC, the business plan isn’t gathering dust in a locked file drawer — it’s being used every day as a road map to achieve goals and as a yardstick to measure success.

Paxos calls it a living document that helps his people get things done a little quicker.

“Most people don’t understand their business plan,” he says. “Business plans are really done, for the most part, for banking purposes or to (present) an idea.”

Paxos says there’s no secret to compiling a good business plan.

“It’s just really the time you put into it,” he insists. “You really educate yourself on your business, on the marketplace. By spending so much time on it, at any given time, we know where we’re at, where we want to be, and what we need to do to hit some of the visions that we’re shooting for.”

The plan chronicles successes as well as failures.

“It’s a book that plots and tracks our history — and what we foresee ahead,” he says.

PPC’s president lists the company’s ability to change with the needs of the industry and its customers as another key to success.

“We’re constantly upgrading our equipment and automating it to improve quality, increase production, make the operation more efficient,” he says.

The latest evidence of that claim is the company’s new $8 million, state-of-the-art facility on Raff Road that consolidates operations that until recently were divided between two plants. How to reach: Precision Powder Coating Inc., (330) 478-0741

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

From Puffs to pizza

Is there a difference between selling toilet paper and selling pizza?

It's a question that begs to be asked of Ken Howe, a former assistant brand manager in the paper division for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble and former senior director of Pizza Hut Inc.

Howe remains straight-faced when he replies, "Basically not." With a just-delivered pizza, "you know that when that box gets opened, that for just a little bit, maybe, life's a little bit better," he says. "It's almost the same with bathroom tissue."

OK, so he's joking. Ripping into a four-roll pack of Charmin can't compare to the mouth-watering anticipation of lifting the lid on a fresh, hot pizza smothered in melted cheese and loaded with pepperoni. But Howe is serious when he says, "The bedrock for me is that you've got to provide something that someone is willing to reach in their pocket, take out their hard-earned money, and pay you for."

That basic business principle -- along with a good sense of humor -- is just one lesson learned from corporate America that the 41-year-old executive brings to Hallrich Inc., the largest franchisee of Pizza Hut restaurants in Ohio. In January, he was named president and chief operating officer of the Stow-based company, which owns and operates 80 restaurants in 14 Northeast Ohio counties.

The area stretches "from Lake Erie down the Pennsylvania line to the Ohio River, then back out to Ashland and back up to Lorain County," says Tony Szambecki, who, in 1968, opened Hallrich's first Pizza Hut in Austintown with financial partner A. Scott Ritchie and the late Bill Hall. (Szambecki says his family name isn't represented in the Hallrich moniker "because they didn't like the name Hallrichski.")

"We've had 15 million-dollar sales weeks this year," Howe says with pride. "We're heading for a sales record. We should do $52 million in sales this year easily."

Szambecki says that by the time Hallrich hired Howe as vice president of operations in 1997, he had long since been lured away from P&G in Cincinnati by the Wichita, Kan.-based Pizza Hut chain, then owned by Pepsico. There, he worked for nine years, first as a marketer, then with a "new concepts group" that determined whether pizza would sell in stadiums, airports, convenience stores, mall food courts, movie theaters, "places that traditional Pizza Huts couldn't go."

"He had a very good reputation as a good people person, a good operator," Szambecki remembers. "I had heard that he was a very positive individual, and I had heard that he was a leader when we were doing the interviews."

He adds that one of the most valuable things Howe brought to Hallrich was a recognition culture that transcended the company's annual awards banquet. He presents crystal apples to anyone who teaches a training program session (preventive maintenance, for example, or dough preparation) and awards "traveling trophies" -- one set each for restaurants, delivery/carryout stores and "restaurants that deliver" -- to general managers at monthly operations meetings.

Managers' names are added to plaques displayed at each location every time the restaurant meets certain standards of excellence during annual inspections.

"We have a lot of pins and letters," Howe says. "We take a lot of pictures. We publish pictures and achievements in our newsletters. It's very much a coaching, praising environment around here."

Howe says Pizza Hut was anxious to recruit P&G employees like him because their employer provided a classic education in basic marketing techniques.

"You understood television advertising, the terminology of that business -- reach and frequency and impressions," he explains. "You understood how print (advertising) worked. You knew the various forms of print, everything from slick ladies' magazines to newspaper advertising."

That knowledge will undoubtedly continue to serve Howe well as he shoulders Hallrich's marketing, personnel and training functions so Szambecki can concentrate on finances and restaurant development. But he learned the importance of recognizing and rewarding others during his time with Pizza Hut.

"There are a lot of companies who don't believe that people are good," he says. "I happen to firmly believe that most people try to do the right thing. I'd rather spend most of my time praising them for what they do right than berating them for what they do wrong."

Howe also credits Pizza Hut with honing his competitive edge, a trait that has been further sharpened since he moved to Northeastern Ohio, which he calls one of the most active pizza markets in the country. Competition is provided by both national chains such as Domino's and Little Caesar's, as well as regional players such as Donatos, Marco's and the East of Chicago Pizza Co.

"Anybody whose last name ends with an 'o' thinks they've got the license to open up a pizza shop," he says. "In America, they've got just as much of a chance to be successful as we do. You've just always got to be making a better product, running a better restaurant.

"It's amazing in the pizza business how quickly a bad pizza can lose you a customer. You really didn't get that in the toilet paper or tissue world."

As for the leadership skills Szambecki mentions, Howe says those were developed during his time in the Army -- four years at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he earned his bachelor's degree in engineering, followed by five years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Dexheim, West Germany.

"The Army is a people leadership business," he says. "Most companies and most businesses boil down to that. ... That's something I liked about the Army. I loved being a platoon leader. I loved being a company commander. "When you run restaurants, you really do have a big team that you can seek to inspire, teach and make better." How to reach: Hallrich Inc., (330) 678-0684Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Painless plans

Dianne Moore is all too familiar with the challenges of securing a good health insurance plan for the 55 full- and part-time workers employed by Austin Tape & Label Inc. in Cuyahoga Falls.

There was a time when Moore faced daily complaints from employees who, fearing their credit histories might be damaged, paid long-overdue doctor and hospital bills simply because the company's former insurance provider hadn't.

"We've had some nightmares," admits the company's office manager of eight years.

But those nightmares disappeared three years ago, after a former employee of that insurance company introduced Moore to her new employer, Akron-based Summa Health Care. The plan Austin Tape & Label selected requires a biweekly employee contribution of $7.26 for single coverage and $27.94 for family coverage.

For their nominal payroll deductions, workers get $10 office visits to their primary care physician of choice in the extensive Summa network. The $10 co-payment applies for visits to any specialists to whom employees are referred, as well as eye exams performed by ophthalmologists listed in the Summa directory.

"Virtually, if you could have open heart surgery in a doctor's office, it would cost 10 bucks," Moore says.

Those admitted to the hospital incur no out-of-pocket expenses.

A prescription card cuts co-payments to $5 per prescription for generic drugs and $10 for name-brand drugs, while another Summa discount card provides a 10 to 35 percent price break on glasses and contact lenses purchased at select opticians and optical centers.

The company offers dental insurance through another insurance carrier, at no cost to employees, that covers 100 percent of the cost for twice-yearly cleanings and exams and 50 to 80 percent of the tab for dental work after a $50 annual deductible is fulfilled.

Austin Tape & Label isn't the only small business in the area that still manages to provide a "rich" health care plan for its employees, while others -- some much larger in size -- continue to cut benefits and increase payroll contributions. Just how does it do it?

"It starts with basic compassion for people," says Dana Shoff, vice president and secretary of DA-Stirling Inc., a Cuyahoga Falls producer of dyes for molded rubber and plastics.

Smart shopping also helps. Moore points out that at one point, Austin was paying far more than the approximately $23,000 a month (including short-term disability and life insurance premiums) it now shells out -- and getting far less for its money. She says this year's rate increase was about 3 percent.

Like Moore, Shoff has encountered the problems inherent in purchasing insurance for DA-Stirling's five employees. During her 18 years with the company, there have been insurance companies that hiked premiums as much as 40 percent from one year to the next.

"A lot of (plans) are rated by the size of your company vs. your usage, that kind of thing," she explains. "It's a killer if you're a small company and you have one thing happen, a fairly major illness or incident."

About six years ago, an independent insurance agent gave Shoff a quote from Summa for a plan similar to the one enjoyed by Austin employees. Office visit co-payments are $5 more, and there are deductibles of $500 for inpatient hospital procedures and $100 for outpatient procedures. However, workers pay nothing for their insurance.

According to Shoff, modest premium increases have, in part, allowed DA-Stirling to continue to offer the coverage, for which it pays about $2,000 a month.

"You play around with your plans when you can," she says.

For example, she switched prescription plans this year to avoid a rate increase. Employees now pay $10 instead of $8 per prescription for generic drugs; $20 instead of $15 for name-brand drugs; and $40 for highly advertised "designer" drugs not listed on Summa's preferred drug list.

"By going to that three-tiered plan, I feel I still gave everyone choices," Shoff says

Kent Clark, marketing director and group benefits coordinator for the Akron-based land surveying company Bock & Clark Corp., says it's a challenge to pay the health insurance bills for the company's 55 employees. Nevertheless, conversations about health care there usually focus on adding perks -- Clark mentions the prescription drug card added last year -- not eliminating them.

"We are fortunate to be profitable and able to maintain that coverage level," he says.

Clark estimates the firm spends $10,000 to $15,000 a month for a comprehensive preferred provider plan offered by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The plan features an annual deductible of $300 for singles, $600 for families, and a 20 percent co-payment until the maximum for out-of-pocket expenses -- $1,000 for singles and $2,000 for families -- is met. (Deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses are higher for those who choose providers outside the network.)

The coverage costs employees $18 per biweekly pay period for single coverage, $36 per pay period for family coverage.

The payoff for providing a good health care plan? The ability to retain and attract good workers.

"Sometimes that's tough to measure," Clark admits.

But he adds that Bock & Clark counts on the costs of providing good health insurance to offset those of hiring and training new employees. Moore, on the other hand, says employees have told her they've looked for work elsewhere and decided to stay at Austin because of the low contributions and comprehensive coverage.

"Our group is reasonably young, but they realize medical insurance is important," she says.

Shoff agrees. She says DA-Stirling employees have come to realize just how much their health care benefits are worth -- so much so that they've come to accept the fact that raises aren't as frequent because of the plan's cost to their employer.

"The fact that we've continued to absorb that cost, that's part of an annual increase that maybe you would see as an employee somewhere else that you won't see here," she says.

How to reach: Summacare Health Plan, (330) 996-8410; Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, (800) 443-6722

Thursday, 28 March 2002 05:14

Relaxation 101

Most people don't associate medical education for professionals with salons and spas. But for the last year, Mario's International Spa & Hotel in Aurora has offered continuing education courses at its Spa Sanctuary new age wellness center.

Laura Pajestka, a one-time registered nurse who serves as clinical director of the spa's continuing education program, has worked with the Ohio Nurses Association to develop seven single-session classes. Nurses may take these classes to complete the 24 credit hours of continuing education required by the state every two years to renew their licenses. A series of classes on aromatherapy has also been approved by the state board that licenses massage therapists.

All courses are taught by professionals licensed and credentialed in their respective fields --- doctors, nurses, a pharmacist, a psychiatrist.

Topics include deep breathing techniques, natural alternatives to medication, reflexology, massage therapy, reiki, even premenstrual dysfunction disorder. Pajestka is working to increase the number of accredited classes, which range in length from three to eight-and-a-half hours and are offered monthly, usually evenings and Saturdays or by appointment for large groups.

Another eight nonaccredited courses, such as Care for the Caregiver, are also offered.

Pajestka says fewer hospitals and universities are offering continuing education courses, so more nurses are relying on independent companies to fulfill their requirements. And more nurses are becoming interested in alternative methods to reduce pain and anxiety in patients.

"Some of the techniques that we teach here can be applied very simply, and they're proven to work," Pajestka says. "A little bit of reiki can calm somebody down, some therapeutic touch and massage."

Other techniques can help ease the agony of a muscle spasm or migraine.

"Drugs have a lot of side effects," Pajestka says. "People don't like feeling spaced out when they take a pain pill. They need to function."

As most nurses will attest, they need the soothing environment provided by the Spa Sanctuary as much as they need the continuing education credits.

"There's an international nursing shortage," Pajestka says. "They're working in very critical situations, very stressful situations, and there's not enough of them to go around."

Classes also include a massage, reiki or reflexology treatment.

"We not only teach you about taking care of yourself and others, we also take care of you," Pajestka says.

How to reach: Mario's International Spa & Hotel, (330) 563-9171

Tuesday, 26 February 2002 11:52

Keeping the flame alive

If it weren't for a strange twist of fate, John Root might be making jewelry instead of candles. His great-grandfather, Amos Ives Root, a jewelry manufacturer, was toiling by the window of his shop on Medina's Public Square one day in August 1865 when the natural light streaming across his work area suddenly dimmed.

"He looked up to see if a thunderstorm was coming, and he noticed this swarm of bees," Root says. "He was fascinated by them. He could watch the bees without fear of being stung."

A shop worker saw how interested Amos Root was in the bees and the hive they were building. He asked his boss what he'd pay him to bring the swarm down and put it in a box for him.

"The man understood that if you find the queen and bring her down, the rest of the bees will follow," Root says.

His great-grandfather offered the employee a dollar -- a day's wages at the time -- to accomplish the feat.

"He (Root) went home to his wife that night with 'a box full of bugs,' as she said," Root says. "She thought he was nuts."

The money turned out to be well spent. Amos Root did some research and turned his attention to the manufacture of beehives, devising a more durable, easy-to-make version of a hive that allowed honey to be extracted without killing its makers. Root's new enterprise became successful enough to warrant acquiring beekeeping supply operations in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and San Antonio during the early 20th century.

In the late 1920s, the A.I. Root Co. branched out into candlemaking after a local priest complained to Amos Root's son, Huber, that he didn't think the candles he was using were made of pure beeswax, as was then required by the Roman Catholic Church.

The company began making scented candles in 1961, when a San Antonio firm suggested adding fragrance to votive candles. Company executives later learned the candles were burned by college students to mask the odor of marijuana in their dorm rooms.

"We realized once that started that there was a great possibility for growth, delivering fragrance through votive candles," Root says.

Finding a niche

The company is no longer in the beehive-building business. Only its beekeeping publications (including a monthly magazine, Bee Culture, first published in 1873) and a fraction of the apiary, which is maintained to test beekeeping equipment, remain. But Root estimates about 40 percent of the family-owned company's revenue is still provided by the manufacture of religious candles, most of which are sold to Catholic churches.

The other 60 percent is generated by the manufacture of scented and decorative candles. A visit to any department store or gift shop proves that candles are enjoying a popularity not seen since the 1970s. And Root says his company, like others, has capitalized on the comeback by introducing a slew of new scents, shades and styles.

Items ranging from a $1.50 votive candle to a $60 jumbo pillar are now sold in approximately 7,000 stores in the United States -- including independent Hallmark stores and Candleman and Wicks 'n Sticks franchises -- as well as by retailers in Canada, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Last year, company sales of religious and decorative candles were about $30 million, enough to support hiring another 20 people.

Together, the company's facilities in Medina and San Antonio employ approximately 280 people.

Understanding the customer

Root says the research-and-development process, as in many industries, begins in the field. Sales manager Bob Krulik says Root candles, like many gift items produced by other manufacturers, are sold to the retail trade in a handful of 16 permanent showrooms scattered around the country -- the closest is the Columbus Gift Mart in Columbus.

Krulik and Root attend monthly shows to get feedback from representatives of the gift, incentive and home decor industries. They also visit retail stores and talk to the company's sales representatives.

"We have an opportunity to talk with our customers, to find out what their consumers -- the people who buy our products through their stores -- are looking for and talking about," Root says.

The company also performs competitive analyses and receives trend analyses from fragrance houses that supply fragrances to the candle-making industry, among others.

"The fragrance houses also do analyses of our own product lines to pinpoint things that they think we might be lacking," Krulik says.

Creative director Laura Jones then asks the fragrance houses A.I. Root does business with to create their interpretations of the scents she dreams up, things like Tangerine Lemongrass, Lime Serenade, Sage, Ivy and Mint, Martha's Sugar Cookie and Fresh Tomato -- a vast deviation from the basic berry and fruit scents offered 20 years ago.

The process can be time-consuming -- Krulik says the company may receive and consider up to 20 samples before it settles on The One.

"Because we're a premium product, our goal is to provide those subtle ambiguities of the fragrances that perhaps more inexpensive candles wouldn't provide," he says.

Not all scents are custom-made. According to Krulik, most houses have a number of stock fragrances that can be easily modified to maintain a degree of exclusivity for each client. But he adds that A.I. Root's best-sellers are originals born of solid market research. Jones cites Tangerine Lemongrass as an example -- for a time after it was introduced last year, it outsold perennial favorite French Vanilla 3-to-1.

Jones says scent offerings have been influenced by the public's increasing interest in spas and aromatherapy, a trend that's yielded fragrances such as Sea Salt Scrub and Ginger Patchouli.

When it comes to selecting colors, she's guided in part by what's happening in the interior design industry. In addition to maintaining a membership in the Alexandria, Va.-based Color Marketing Group, a 1,500-member professional organization that projects and determines color palettes to be used in a variety of industries, Jones spends a lot of time shopping and leafing through home decorating magazines.

"If it's hot in wall coverings or upholstery fabric, we have the right color to go with it," she says.

Quality comes first

But Jones says the company has yet to turn out candles embedded with the flowers, greenery, candies, cinnamon sticks -- you name it -- that have been so popular with consumers.

"There's the possibility (the decorative elements) could flare and burn," she says.

Instead, the company has focused on developing a variety of finishes and textures. Some even look like they're encased in tree bark. A.I. Root has also eschewed producing candles in various shapes because, as Jones puts it, "a round candle burns better than, say, a square one. Our customer's priority is definitely burn quality."

Root and Jones say people are willing to spend more for Root candles because of that quality -- they don't smoke, are less apt to drip, and throw fragrance so well that Jones claims a single votive can scent more than the room in which it's left burning. Root says that highly refined, harder waxes and proper wicking allow even jumbo pillars to self-consume, or leave no outer shell behind.

But Jones admits that selling quality is a never-ending challenge, one the company continually tries to meet by educating retailers in meetings with sales representatives and leaving lists of candle-burning tips for their customers.

Root believes that mission may be best accomplished by maintaining three company-owned stores: a long-prospering operation at West Liberty Commons in Medina, a shop at Prime Outlets in Lodi and a location at Aurora Premium Outlets in Aurora that opened late last year. Despite the faltering economy, Jones says sales at the Medina and Lodi stores were up 25 percent last year.

"It gives us the opportunity to showcase our entire line in what we consider to be the best light," Krulik says. "It just takes that ambiguity out of giving it to a third party and letting them choose what to do with it."

How to reach: A.I Root Co., (330) 725-6677, www.airoot.com

Tuesday, 30 October 2001 06:06

Looking outside

When Bertha Jenkins applied for a job in Liniform Service's uniform make-up department in 1971, it's safe to say the 21-year-old wasn't gunning for the president's office. But over the years, she worked her way up the proverbial ladder at the Barberton-based uniform/linen sales and rental concern, graduating from mending torn aprons and linens to the position of production manager, then general manager.

By the time Pat Shultz was hired as a part-time office/production worker in 1980, Jenkins had been appointed vice president. Shultz would follow in her footsteps, moving from doing the billing and ironing linens to managing the office and, eventually, becoming vice president when Jenkins assumed the title of president. Today, Jenkins is in charge of production, maintenance and purchasing, while Shultz oversees sales, service and finance.

''Any time you would ask them to do something, they would do it,'' remembers Ed Good, Liniform's 80-year-old chairman of the board, during a conference call. ''In the beginning, it was pretty basic stuff.''

As the years went by, Jenkins and Shultz kept shouldering more and more responsibility until, as Good puts it, ''they had it all.''

''Liniform was a pretty small company and didn't have a lot of levels,'' Shultz interjects. ''Ed always believed that people had to do a job. They didn't necessarily go by a title.''

The recounting of these women's careers could be regarded as just another hard-work-pays-off American success story if it weren't for one major twist -- they hold the top two positions in a company owned by a family neither calls their own. Good has four children who own stock in the company and sit on its seven-member board of directors, where they actively participate in developing strategic plans, making decisions regarding major purchases, etc.

The arrangement, according to Jenkins and Shultz, offers one distinct advantage over management made up entirely of family members: It isn't encumbered by the emotional baggage so many of them bring to work. Both women point out, for example, that they were promoted to their positions strictly on their individual merits and can be fired if they stop performing on the job. At some family-run companies, Shultz says, people ''slide into'' top positions simply because they're related to the boss, not because they're qualified.

Getting rid of them, she adds, is almost impossible because of the relationships involved.

''It's pretty hard to separate family from business,'' Good admits. ''In our case, the family and the business are separated.''

Until Shultz was named president, the day-to-day operations of Liniform had been handled by a family member, first by Good's father and uncle, who started the business in 1924 as a residential laundry, then by Good himself. The laundry expanded into dry cleaning and in 1971 began renting towels in an effort to replace the sagging laundry business.

Today the company, which employs 48, provides tablecloths, napkins, dish towels, bar towels and aprons to the hospitality industry and sheets, patient gowns and doctor's coats to medical facilities. As the business grew, Good started to think about who would succeed him.

''You see people turn over their business when they retire, and the whole thing falls apart,'' he says.Although his kids had sampled all facets of the business by holding summer jobs throughout high school and college, they ultimately chose different career paths -- three are teachers and one works for a publishing company.

Fortunately, Good had never let the idea of his children taking over the business keep him from developing and promoting executive stock. As a result, Jenkins and Shultz were waiting in the wings.

''It's rare that you find a person who really comes in and is part of the business, who looks at it as their own,'' Good says. ''Those people can manage it.'' Shultz says she and Jenkins have had few disagreements with the board over the years. ''They do trust us, and our hearts are all in the right place for what we want, which is really what's best for Liniform in the long term,'' Shultz says.

Indeed, the company grew by 12 percent last year -- prosperity few boards would argue with. That doesn't mean, however, that there haven't been concerns. The first arose when Jenkins and Shultz received shares of stock equal to what Good's children owned -- a situation both women feared would upset the children and, in turn, disrupt solid working relationships.

''Bertha and I had a problem with that because we felt like Ed was giving away their inheritance,'' Shultz explains. ''But (the kids) felt that their inheritance was worth more in the future with us being part of it.''

A formula for calculating the company's worth as well as a payment plan is in place should Jenkins, Shultz or anyone else decide they want to sell their shares. That information was shared with the children of shareholders at a family meeting this past summer. Shultz admits the board has yet to develop a training program should those children -- either Jenkins' and Shultz' kids or Good's grandchildren -- show an interest in working for the company. A few have worked at Liniform during the summer, but their names alone don't guarantee a place in the executive offices.

''We have some managers ... we're trying to develop to run this business,'' Shultz says. ''We're trying to do exactly what Ed did,'' Jenkins adds. ''We're always looking for that individual or individuals who can fill our shoes.''

How to reach: Liniform Service, (330) 825-6911

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

A simple premise

The small, picture-postcard town of Peninsula isn't exactly the sort of place your garden-variety retailer would choose to set up shop.

There are no shopping plazas with big box anchors, no malls inhabited by retail chains, not even a bustling town square. The only store of considerable size on Main Street is Booties of Peninsula, a purveyor of fine tableware, gifts, home accessories and furnishings.

Proprietor and Peninsula native Chris Hixson calls it a "home goods emporium," a place that sells everything from greeting cards and candles to $4,000 sofas. During its 29 years in business, the store has moved from its original 500-square-foot space in Peninsula's former post office and overtaken 4,500 square feet in its current location down the street in what was once a general store.

More than 600 manufacturers are represented in the stock, which makes the establishment popular with upper-crust brides registering for wedding gifts. Although Hixson is vague about sales figures, he notes that his company, Summerfall Cos. Inc., placed 25th on last year's Weatherhead 100, a list of Northeast Ohio's 100 fastest-growing businesses compiled by the Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management.

"Most of our gross (revenue) comes from Booties because Booties is the biggest part of the company," he says.

Booties' remote location provokes a question that Hixson has answered over and over again: Why are people willing to drive the 30 minutes he estimates the average customer travels to get there?

"For me, it seems kind of simple," he replies. "When you go to the mall, you go to the mall to buy something. When you come to Booties, it's about the experience as much as it is about the product that you end up taking home."

The experience is browsing among unusual, high-end items not found in any mall without hunting all over for them or enduring traffic jams, full parking lots and surly salespeople.

Creating a unique shopping experience, however, was not the goal Hixson had in mind when he bought the business (then known as Booties Dry Goods Store) in 1996 from co-founder and owner Robert Hunker, who was retiring. His main concern at the time was to ensure the foot traffic necessary to sustain his own Main Street craft galleries, Among Friends and Modo.

"Booties, because of the size and how long it had been here, was the main draw for shoppers in the village," Hixson explains. "And I've always loved the store, ever since I was a teen-ager. I always thought it was a neat place."

That doesn't mean that Hixson didn't see room for improvement. Under Hunker's ownership, the original stock, predominantly homespun-looking linens and fabrics, had expanded to include collectibles -- "china figurines and things like that," Hixson says. During his tenure as owner, Hixson has tried to add items to which Booties has exclusive dibs. For example, the store is the only retailer in the Akron area selling glassware by Simon Pearce, an Irish glassblower with stores on New York City's tony Park Avenue and in its hip Soho district.

"The emphasis that we've taken over the last several years is to add more and more European products to the mix," he says.

The selection of china, flatware and crystal patterns by makers such as Waterford, Lenox and Spode has been augmented with French and Italian imports produced by manufacturers such as Gien and Philippe DeShoulieres. And when Booties began stocking linens again last year, they were fine linens made in France.

"Most gift shops in our area do a lot of their buying at the Columbus Gift Show," he says. "We don't because we know that all the other gift shops are buying there. We go to New York, we go to High Point, (N.C.). I go on buying trips to Europe. That pretty much guarantees my customer that they're not going to see these things all over. It's very rare for us to get a return with a customer saying, 'Oh, I got three of these for my wedding.'"

That ability to provide the atypical has provided Booties with another valued group of customers -- businesses looking for corporate gifts that haven't been given before.

"We meet with them and come up with really interesting things," says Hixson. "I don't have a salesperson with a catalog of stuff."

Recent creations include an Italian ceramic pasta bowl accompanied by a basket containing pestos, crackers, cocktail napkins and a Tuscan cookbook, and a collection of leather-bound photo albums that came with a disposable camera to help fill them.

Hixson believes the attention paid to how items are displayed also has played a part in creating the Booties experience. In fact, he says Booties began stocking a limited amount of handcrafted furniture simply because it was more effective in creating a certain mood or look than the row after row of shelves so many stores use.

He also employs a full-time display manager who accompanies him on buying trips and makes notes on what items are purchased and how they can be used together.

Old-fashioned service is as much a part of the Booties shopping experience as the stock. Hixson is proud of the fact that he has only one recent hire on his staff of 15; everyone else has been at the store at least five years, some for as long as two decades.

"When you ask them a question, they're going to know the answer, no matter what it's about," he boasts. "If they don't, they're going to go out of their way to find it for you."

Telephones are answered by the second ring, and regular customers are greeted by name. Salespeople remember which items brides and grooms have registered for, what their guests bought, even the details of their weddings.

Hixson will pick up an item or take pictures of it with his digital camera and e-mail them to the store simply because he thinks a particular customer will like it. He's even ordered a customer's Christmas gift for his wife -- a set of collectible plates -- without the man's knowledge after watching him charge into the store three days before Christmas for two years straight, order a set of collectible plates, and ask to have them shipped overnight.

"If we see a need they might have, even if they haven't told us they have the need, we'll try to fill it," he says.

Hixson admits he hasn't been able to keep everyone happy. He bluntly tells callers he can't match prices for china, flatware and crystal offered by national mail-order discount companies.

"If somebody calls and says, 'I saw this for $12,' I'm honest with them," he says. "I say, 'You know, we pay more than $12 for it.'"

And not everyone likes the fact that the store isn't open at night, although an employee will stick around if a customer isn't finished shopping or isn't able to pick something up until after closing time. The owner has found that one drawback to Booties' location is that people don't beat a path to his door after dark.

The flip side, however, is that Booties employees get their rest.

"I can't offer the level of service we do if I have people working here at 9 or 10 o'clock at night," he says. How to reach: Booties of Peninsula, (330) 657-2535

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.

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