Nancy Byron

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:53

Much ado about nothing

As a manager, if I make a decision that endangers a worker’s health or safety, I hold part of the blame for any resulting injury suffered by that worker. If I were a health insurer, however, and I made a decision that adversely affected the health of a policyholder, apparently there would be no legal consequence of my actions.

That’s what some state lawmakers were telling us would happen if House Bill 4 passed through the Ohio Legislature without reinserting a provision that specifically gave patients the right to sue their insurance companies over treatment decisions and coverage disputes. What hogwash!

Where is it written that a health insurance company can’t be sued by a patient? It’s been done before in courts all across the country, and I’m sure it will happen again, regardless of what Ohio’s so-called “Patient Protection Law” now says. Anybody can sue anybody else for just about anything these days. They don’t need a state legislature to give them permission.

Now, as many of you know from my past columns, I’m not one to advocate lawsuits. I tend to believe our society has become far too litigious and that there are often more constructive — and less expensive — methods to resolve such differences.

The state legislature has set forth such an alternative in House Bill 4. An external review process was included in the version of the bill passed in June, allowing patients involved in a dispute over the medical necessity of a treatment to have an independent medical panel or physician determine whether coverage is appropriate.

While that’s all well and good, it does not specifically preclude a patient from taking his or her insurer to court if the external review process does not yield a satisfactory result. If it did, I’m sure the courts would find House Bill 4 unconstitutional in and of itself.

After all, doctors can be sued for malpractice. So why not insurance companies? It’s essentially the same thing if a patient is denied coverage for a medically necessary, physician-recommended treatment and, as a result of not receiving this treatment, the patient’s condition worsens or even leads to his or her death.

Negligence ought to be punished. And as for those who fear health insurance rates will skyrocket under the threat of patient legal action, insurers will only realize additional expense if they, in fact, have been acting with negligence.

The insurance business, by definition, is risky and potentially quite costly. Insurers unwilling to take on the risks inherent to their business ought not to stay involved in health insurance. It’s not just about making money. It’s about making money in a responsible fashion.

Good health care isn’t cheap. It never has been. That’s why people buy insurance. An insurer is supposed to act in the best interests of its policyholders — not just its shareholders. When that doesn’t happen, that insurer will wind up in court. And that’s going to happen whether or not the state legislature says it can.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:53

Healthy, wealthy & wise

Heavy lifting was par for the course at Curtis McGuire’s company. His employees knew that. Yet, none of them wore safety belts, back supports or steel-toed shoes.

No wonder McGuire’s more than 65 workers, who load and unload semi-tractor trailers for Redleg’s Lumper Service Inc. in Columbus, were getting injured at a rate of about one every two weeks.

“We had a number of injuries as far as hurt backs and things of those nature,” says McGuire, who founded the $900,000 company eight years ago. “We’ve had people drop pallets on their ankle or feet when they’re unloading ... people doing silly things. I don’t want to see somebody get hurt. Employees are a precious commodity right now. I don’t want to sound like I’m just a ruthless businessman, but we need every employee we can get.”

That’s why McGuire called safety consultant Jim Wirth of Gates/McDonald last fall to “come in here and take a look” at what he could do to make his workplace safer.

“I had a little fear because I didn’t know what would happen,” McGuire admits. “But I gave him a tour, he made some recommendations, and I said, ‘Yes, I agree with you.’”

Wirth not only suggested that McGuire make back supports and steel-toed boots mandatory, but that he also start holding regular safety meetings with workers. These monthly meetings cover topics such as:

  • Proper lifting techniques.

  • How to wear a safety belt.

  • Where to go in a building for tornado protection.

“We spent some time getting employees to buy in on it,” McGuire says of the safety meetings and new equipment, some of which employees are required to purchase as a condition of their employment. “But we told them, ‘If you’re hurt, you can’t work. It’s a lot easier for you not to get hurt in the first place.’”

Already McGuire is seeing a difference.

“We’re seeing fewer injuries overall,” he says. “An employee hurt his hand [in early June], but before that, we haven’t had an injury since last year in the summer or fall.”

In addition, McGuire’s safety precautions have earned his company better workers’ comp rates.

“I was paying close to $40,000 a year and they cut it in more than half after everything was said and done,” he boasts. “I was just overjoyed.”

As for the cost of the inspection, McGuire says that was included as part of his participation in the National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio’s Gates/McDonald workers’ comp pool.

“It cost me nothing,” he says.

McGuire is such a believer in workplace safety now that he made a trip to Washington, D.C., earlier this year to urge the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training to pass legislation providing incentives for business owners like him to hire safety consultants to inspect their workplaces.

U.S. Senate Bill 385 is sponsored by Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming and has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is the editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:52

Now that’s affordable

It was an irresistible offer: Let a few MBA students explore international marketing opportunities for your company as part of a class and they’ll turn over to you — for free — all the information they dig up, including an analysis of the material.

How could John Li refuse?

“I was very comfortable with it because I’d just completed my MBA a couple years ago and we did projects like this,” says Li, marketing director for B.H. Thermal Corp., a $9 million Columbus manufacturer of flexible electric heating products.

So earlier this year, Li invited three Ashland University graduate students to visit the 49-year-old East Side company. He spent a couple weeks explaining to the students what, exactly, B.H. Thermal did and how its products — which include flexible heating tape, cables, blankets and jackets — were used.

“Then we talked about where we’d been from a marketing standpoint and where we wanted to go internationally,” Li says.

Roughly 10 to 15 percent of B.H. Thermal’s revenues are already generated overseas, Li says, but he’d like to see that increase to 30 or 35 percent in the next couple years.

“We’d already done some research on some countries because of that,” he says. “Asia happened to be an area [the students] were interested in exploring and it happened to be the area we were most interested in expanding into.”

The group did preliminary research on Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong before settling on Taiwan for their class project.

“That was one of our strong targets,” Li says, noting that once the country was selected, he turned the threesome loose. What they came back with about three months later amazed him — armfuls of research reports, journal articles, Internet print outs and the like, which, when stacked upon Li’s desk, stood about 8 inches high.

“I was shocked when they came walking in with it,” Li says. “And they did it all for free. Most consulting groups would probably charge a couple thousand dollars to do something like this.”

Although Li confesses he’s not yet gone over every page of the research, he’s been impressed with the items he’s read through.

“I know the information is good because I can see the sources they used,” he says, pulling an article from Harvard Business Review out of the stack as an example. “They did a good job of keeping track of where their information came from. They even brought me printouts of pages off the Internet so I can go back to the site and dig deeper.”

In addition to data about the potential market for B.H. Thermal’s products in Taiwan, the group uncovered names of possible selling partners, competitors and general economic trends there and in adjacent countries.

“There’s just all sorts of stuff in here,” Li says. “My expectations were essentially zero going into this. I was doing it first and foremost to help these business students ...[But] they’ve given me a lot of data I need to go ahead and make decisions — without having to gather the data myself.”

In fact, Li plans to set up meetings with some of the potential distributors and manufacturer reps identified in the students’ report when he travels to Asia later this year.

“Sometimes students put forth more tunnel-vision effort than an employee that wears lots of different hats,” Li says. “That’s the only thing they’re working on. They only have one priority from you.”

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

Webside assistance

We’ve all been through it and, from what I’ve heard, auto dealers don’t like price haggling any more than we do. Now, with reliable pricing information easily accessible to anyone with a computer and Internet hook-up, potential car buyers can enter their dealership of choice more informed and better prepared to negotiate a deal that’s readily acceptable to both sides.

Here are several data-packed Web sites to get you started:

One-Stop Auto

www.1stopauto.com

Here you’ll find information on new and used car buying, pricing, financing, credit, title checks, warranties and auto insurance.

Auto Channel Car Reviews

www.theautochannel.com/content/vehicles/new/reviews/index.html?

This Web page offers reviews for a variety of vehicle makes and models from 1993 to the present.

Auto Pricing

http://autopricing.autoworld.com

Look here for free information on cars, dealer invoice pricing and actual market values. This site also includes tips on financing, insurance, warranties, roadside assistance and auto theft prevention.

Car Prices

www.carprices.com

This page is a pricing guide for new and used vehicles from 1985 to the present. It also includes detailed reviews of new cars, information about insurance and warranties, and an area for consumer comments.

Car Info

www.carinfo.com

Check out this site for information by consumer advocate and auto expert Mark Eskeldson about buying, leasing and repairing cars and trucks. Eskeldson is the author of, “What Car Dealers Don’t Want You to Know,” and “What Auto Mechanics Don’t Want You to Know.”

Green Guide to Cars and Trucks

http://aceee.org/greenercars

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy hosts this site, which includes excerpts from its 115-page book that ranks cars and trucks according to environmental friendliness. The book, which can be ordered through the site, helps buyers compare vehicles by environmental impact, including air pollution, contribution to global warming and fuel efficiency.

Kelley Blue Book

www.kbb.com

Find the “official” Blue Book values on used cars, trucks and vans here, as well as new car pricing, including invoice and manufacturer suggested retail price.

Motor Trend Buyer’s Guide

www.motortrend.com/bl/bl_f.html

This site features a vehicle performance database, buying and leasing tips and negotiation strategies.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

Slow down

Speeding twice in the same year will land you in court — and your case could even wind up in front of a jury. That may change, however, under a proposal introduced in the state legislature earlier this year to revamp Ohio’s traffic code.

Sen. Scott Oelslager (R-Canton) penned Senate Bill 176, which proposes to lessen the penalty associated with a second speeding violation in one year from a fourth-degree misdemeanor to a minor misdemeanor to avoid possible jury trial costs and the potential cost of a public defender. This is just one example of how Oelslager’s bill aims to reevaluate penalties assigned to certain violations to ensure they’re consistent with penalties for similar crimes and that they’re fitting to the crime itself.

“This legislation is simply a common-sense approach to traffic law,” Oelslager says. “Within the code are many examples where the law is extremely harsh for minor offenses and perhaps not as harsh as it should be for serious offenses.”

Other changes proposed in Senate Bill 176 include:

Assessing points on a driver’s license based solely on the speed over the limit rather than both the speed and number of convictions in a year.

Adding a license suspension for chronic speeding, defined as three or more offenses within a year.

Renaming and redefining “occupational” driving privileges for those with suspended licenses as “limited” privileges, which would also permit driving for educational, vocational and medical purposes as well as for taking a driver’s license exam, treatment or other court-ordered purposes.

Adding an automatic license suspension penalty for drivers who fail to stop after an accident.

Establishing a principle that drivers suspected of driving under the influence, but who don’t submit to chemical tests to determine blood-alcohol levels, are presumed to be under the influence.

Increasing the reinstatement fee for a license suspended for refusing to submit to a chemical test to determine blood-alcohol level.

Counting convictions from other states and under federal law as prior offenses when a driver is sentenced for operating a vehicle under the influence.

Applying criminal rather than traffic rules to felony OVIs.

Increasing the penalty for drunken vehicular homicides and making the crime easier to prove.

Creating a vehicular manslaughter misdemeanor to cover deaths from accidental traffic violations.

Increasing penalties by one degree for those involved in vehicular death crimes if the person was under a license suspension at the time or had three drunken driving convictions.

Oelslager sought input in fashioning Senate Bill 176 from the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, municipal court practitioners, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the State Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, county sheriffs, the State Bureau of Adult Detention and Families Against Negligent Drivers.

How to reach: Sen. Scott Oelslager, 466-0626

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is an editor and statehouse correspondent for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

How we’ll get around in 2020

With orange construction barrels lining nearly every major highway in Central Ohio these days, and with unemployment remaining at historic lows, it’s no wonder advocates of mass transit are finding a more attentive audience in business commuters and private employers.

In June, the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce endorsed two tax levies which, if approved by voters Nov. 2, would allow the Central Ohio Transit Authority — better known as COTA — to dramatically expand its bus service. In addition, discussion about adding passenger rail between Cleveland and Columbus has surfaced again in anticipation of the eight-year Interstate 71 road widening and resurfacing project slated to begin next spring.

These and other transportation issues are pivotal to the future of our city. Here’s a closer look at the issues.

Falling short

Ron Barnes realizes COTA has its flaws. Its hours of operation aren’t long enough. Its geographic reach isn’t wide enough. Its ability to ease traffic congestion isn’t great enough.

“We try to do what we can with the money we have,” says Barnes, general manager and CEO of COTA. “We revise routes as need be, but we can’t meet all the needs.”

That’s why the board at COTA is asking voters to approve two 0.25 percent sales tax increases — one temporary and one permanent — next month. The 10-year tax request would replace an identical tax that expires in January 2000. The permanent tax , Barnes says, would allow COTA to dramatically expand and improve its services.

“We’re not meeting the needs of the community today and if we only received one [tax levy], we would continue not meeting the needs of the community tomorrow,” he says. “If they both fail, we wouldn’t be able to operate — at all.”

So just what will these tax levies buy for the business community? Here’s a sampling:

Later hours. “We’ll start to look at expanding hours on some of our routes,” Barnes says, noting a dozen of the most popular bus routes would remain in operation 24 hours a day. In addition, local service on all routes would be extended to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. “If we had later, more frequent service, we could better serve the community.”

Shorter waits. “If we make it difficult for people to use public transit, they’re not going to use it,” Barnes says. “If I have to wait 30 minutes or an hour for a bus, I may not ride. If buses are every 15 minutes or less, that’s more appealing.”

To this end, Barnes envisions increasing his current fleet of 314 buses to roughly 560 — a 78 percent increase. In addition, he wants to add more bus stops — roughly 42 percent more — and build 16 more transit centers, similar to the one being piloted in the Linden area now, to accommodate increased bus flow.

Faster commutes. Adding passenger rail from suburban areas to downtown is one way Barnes sees for easing traffic congestion on the highways. “We’re looking at rail as an alternative to move people around the community,” he says.

The first rail route to be added under COTA’s plan would run north from downtown to the Crosswoods area, near I-270 in Worthington. This line would be added in 2005 and would likely connect with any I-71 rail route used to link Columbus and Cleveland during the prolonged road widening project set to begin on that highway next year. Seven more passenger rail routes would be added around Central Ohio to speed worker commutes by the year 2020, according to the COTA plan.

“Buses will continue to be the mainstay of this organization, but rail will play a key role in getting traffic off congested areas,” Barnes says.

Better control. Passage of the two COTA levies would allow the introduction of hi-tech systems to more efficiently run Central Ohio’s transit system. For example, a Global Positioning System — which uses satellites to pinpoint the exact location of moving and stationary objects anywhere in the world — would allow COTA passengers to track the precise time a bus was going to arrive at their stop, rather than relying on a pre-printed schedule of estimated arrival times. It would also allow COTA’s management to route buses more efficiently.

“If two buses are traveling right behind each other because one is off schedule, we don’t know that now until one of the drivers calls in to say, ‘I’m off schedule,’” Barnes says. “This will enable us to do a better job, control costs and provide better service by turning one of those buses around.”

In the meantime

While Barnes awaits the fate of COTA’s two levy proposals, he’s actively pursuing ways to make its existing service more useful to Central Ohio employers. He recently created a Mobility Manager position at COTA, intended to serve as a transportation consultant to area businesses to help find the most efficient ways to get employees to and from work.

“I think providing access to jobs is the biggest contribution COTA makes to this community,” Barnes says.

He’s also considering ways to overhaul COTA’s Employer Pass Program.

“The pass program we have now is very static,” Barnes admits. “We’re looking for ways to enhance that. We need to create additional incentives to use public transit.”

The current program allows employers to offer tax-deductible commuter transit benefits to employees by subsidizing 50 to 100 percent of a monthly COTA pass or simply providing an on-site location where COTA passes can be purchased. Under the program, employers may contribute up to $65 per month tax-free per employee.

“Employees can also use pre-tax dollars to purchase passes,” Barnes adds.

Another way Barnes is hoping to better serve the business community is by using part of a $670,000 federal grant to expand COTA’s “reverse commute” program, which routes buses from downtown out to the suburbs during the morning rush and back again at night, instead of the traditional suburbs-to-downtown commute.

“The workplace is shifting from downtown to suburban areas,” Barnes says. “There are about 85,000 workers downtown and about 175,000 to 200,000 in and around [Interstate] 270. We are getting [workers] out to Rickenbacker, the Eastons, the Tuttles, the Worthingtons. But we’re looking to grow that program.”

That’s important, since the lingering labor crunch has employers throughout Central Ohio clamoring for more ways to bring additional employees into their areas. Barnes recently received a call from one such employer who was thinking of leaving the area all together because the company needed 100 more employees along with a way to get those people to and from work 24 hours a day.

“I’m going to go in there with the mayor and ask them, ‘What type of needs do you have short and long term?’ and ‘What can we do to better serve your needs?’ Because of the work force development issue, it’s critical that we do these things.

“Our dynamic community is ever-changing,” Barnes summarizes. “We need to customize our services to fit the needs of the community.”

How to reach: Ron Barnes at COTA, 275-5850; barnesrl@cota.com

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

A truly remarkable journey

Dimon McFerson hadn’t even finished college when death snatched away from him a potentially great influence in his life.

“I lost my father when I was 21,” he says. “I think that was an opportunity lost.”

Still, McFerson often shares and tries to live by a cherished nugget of advice his father once gave him: “Be totally honest; absolutely and totally honest — with no double standards.”

Perhaps that’s why McFerson, who has climbed the proverbial ladder of success at Nationwide Insurance, hesitates when asked about those who have helped shape his career and influenced him as an individual. He honestly can’t name all the names.

“There’s no one person,” the 62-year-old McFerson says. “I try to emulate the character of lots of people around me that set good examples.”

He mentions the importance of his Mormon faith and points out that some of the leaders in his church have been good role models. He talks in generalities about the countless biographies he’s read about successful business leaders, noting, “I pick up what I can from them.” Then there’s the obvious mentor: his much-heralded predecessor at Nationwide, John E. Fisher.

“John Fisher was my boss virtually my entire time at Nationwide,” says McFerson, who began his career with the $100 billion insurance company in 1979 as vice president of internal audits. “He taught me a lot about the culture, the history ... He kind of led me along the right path.”

Getting started on the path that led him to the chairmanship at Nationwide, however, was pure happenstance, McFerson admits.

“Probably like a lot of other people, I didn’t choose this career,” he says. “I always felt I wanted to be involved in business in some capacity, so when I graduated from college at UCLA, I had a degree in business education, but I decided I didn’t want to be a business teacher at a high school. I decided I wanted to be in business.”

After stints as a management trainee with a California drugstore chain and serving time in the Army, McFerson found a job with a growing, public accounting firm then known simply as Ernst.

“I went back to night school, passed the CPA exam and the very first audit I was assigned to was an insurance company,” McFerson says. “They could’ve assigned me to health care or anything else, but over the course of several years, I became the insurance guy. Here I am, almost 40 years later, and I’m still the insurance guy.”

Through five promotions in his 20 years at Nationwide, McFerson lists as his greatest accomplishment “helping to move Nationwide toward a more high-performance company; helping it become an organization that really emphasizes performance and leadership development and building a strong core of people ... But I’ll probably be remembered as the guy that brought a lot of change to Nationwide and moved it away from its traditional business,” he adds.

Some of the most challenging moments McFerson has faced at Nationwide are those that follow natural disasters.

“When we have major hurricanes we have to deal with and we have tens of thousands of policy holders depending on us, knowing we can’t get to all of them the next day — I worry about that,” he says.

Fear of failure is what motivates this father of seven and grandfather of 20 to succeed in business.

“I also feel I have a responsibility to uphold my name and my reputation and my family so my children and grandchildren will feel like their father or grandfather is someone they can be proud of,” he adds.

Clearly, family holds great importance in McFerson’s life. He quick to say his greatest accomplishment, be it personal or professional, is “marrying the right woman.” Forget the Humanitarian of the Year Award bestowed upon him two years ago by the American Red Cross. Forget the Tree of Life Award he received from the National Jewish Fund for exemplary leadership and humanitarian service. Forget being elected chairman of three insurance industry groups as well as to the board of COSI and the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. Those pale in comparison.

“My wife, Darlene, she’s a sweetheart,” he says with pride, thinking about the woman he met through his church and married 26 years ago. “She’s very insightful. She’s a confidence builder. She’s just a terrific lady — happy, upbeat, positive. When I come home after a busy day or tough time, I always know things are going to be solid and consistent because that’s the way she is. It’s a good place to go home to and recharge my batteries.”

When McFerson gets a free moment, he enjoys golfing, exercising, spending time with his family and basking in the sun.

“I like to lay around the pool,” he confesses. “That’s the Southern California guy in me coming out.”

Reading is also one of his favorite pastimes. One book that’s left a particular impression on McFerson is the biography of former President Harry Truman.

“Here’s a guy who never intended to be president, but when the opportunity was thrust upon him, he didn’t shirk away from it. He went in there and did the best he could and he didn’t let his ego get ahead of him. He was just a regular guy who was put in a bigger job than he ever expected in life, and when that job was over, he went back to being a regular guy.

“That’s what I want to do. When my time is up, I want to go back to being a regular guy again.”

If the truth be known, McFerson hasn’t strayed all that far.

“I love junk food,” shyly admits the man who’s considered one of the 10 most powerful in the city. “I love graham crackers and milk. That’ll probably come back to haunt me.”

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Where’s the demand?

If ONN is such a great idea, why is the Dispatch having to push so hard to sell it? And why aren’t Time Warner’s customers begging to have the channel added?

Nobody likes being told what to do — especially in business dealings. As a business owner, you should be capable of making decisions about what products and services will best meet your customers’ needs, either by directly consulting those customers or by watching industry trends.

When you make a bad decision, your customers let you know, primarily by not buying a particular product or service you offer.

Seems to me, that’s what’s happening to the Dispatch Printing Co., owner of the Ohio News Network. Executives there are pushing mighty hard — some might say bullying — to get their fledgling news station aired alongside Time Warner Communications’ regular cable programming.

Not only is Time Warner saying, ‘No thanks,’ to the concept, but apparently its subscribers are equally disinterested. Why can’t the Dispatch get the message that sends? Instead, the Dispatch folks are trying to strong-arm Time Warner by threatening to not renew the cable company’s contract to broadcast WBNS 10-TV — which the Dispatch also owns — unless ONN is picked up as a standard cable offering.

Perhaps a more appropriate response would be entertaining the possibility that ONN may not be such a great business idea after all. If it were, and ONN were garnering wonderful ratings in the other markets and on the other cable services where it’s offered now, Time Warner would be foolish to pass on the opportunity to add another high-demand channel. Clearly that’s not the case — which is why the Dispatch ought to revisit the entire concept of a statewide news channel.

Sure, the Dispatch has invested quite a bit in launching ONN. But it may have more to lose by trying to stare down Time Warner than by letting go of it at this point — at least in Columbus.

Consider this: Time Warner serves roughly half of the 2.8 million cable households in the state and a similar percentage in the Columbus metro area. If the Dispatch withholds permission for Time Warner to rebroadcast WBNS in Columbus, it has essentially cut Channel 10’s viewing audience by as much as 50 percent, too.

That’s going to hurt Channel 10’s advertising revenues. It has to. What prudent advertiser would pay the same rate for a smaller potential audience? Granted, Time Warner customers will still be able to access Channel 10, but only if they go to the trouble of either disconnecting their cable to watch a particular show or switching cable services.

Most people won’t bother. And even if they do, will it happen in time to keep Channel 10’s ratings high during February sweeps week? I think not. That could have an even longer-lasting impact on WBNS’s ad sales.

Given all that, one has to wonder what price the Dispatch folks are putting on their pride at this point. That seems to be the only reason to continue forcing the issue — and risk losing so much revenue from advertisers as well as good will from cable customers who resent being caught in the middle of this ridiculous fight.

The Dispatch ought to stop trying to force-feed Ohioans ONN and move on. After all, the only way to learn from a mistake is to recognize you’ve made one.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:45

Get over it

Bookstores are my weakness. There’s something very warm and inviting about browsing quietly among the tall, carefully arranged shelves of glossy new bindings, getting lost in the colorful descriptions on each jacket cover, and — ultimately — finding those two or three books I just can’t do without.

It may not be the most efficient way to shop, but, to me, it’s an enjoyable way to wile away an otherwise dreary winter day.

You can’t tell me Amazon.com can replicate that experience. No, shopping online is an efficient, yet impersonal and cold, way to accomplish a specific task. It’s not meant to entice or entertain. It’s meant to be quick and easy.

Which method of shopping you choose depends on your priorities. Some say it also depends on your wallet. Internet retailers don’t charge sales tax on purchases, as local retailers must. Sure, that’s a competitive advantage, but so is offering customers the ability to thumb through books or try on clothing or check the quality of merchandise in person when shopping.

The sales tax advantage is no greater than these others. In fact, I’d argue that it provides less of an edge.

The prospect of saving 5.75 percent on a purchase will not, by itself, drive consumers to the Internet en masse. The Web’s 24-hour convenience and ability to search quickly for specific items might draw them in, but a lack of sales tax isn’t going to tip the scales that much — especially when you factor in the shipping and handling charges online retailers add to the bill.

In 1998, Congress overwhelmingly passed a three-year moratorium on Internet taxation. Since then, U.S. Reps. John Kasich (R-Westerville) and John Boehner (R-West Chester) have proposed making this tax ban permanent. And why shouldn’t it be?

The Internet is an anomaly. Transactions don’t take place in one, physical location; they occur everywhere and nowhere all at once. That, alone, would make taxation a logistical nightmare. And who wants to pay for all the government workers it would take to sort out that puzzle? Not me.

So let’s quit all the whining and get on with business. E-commerce is a fast-growing phenomenon local retailers need to accept and learn to compete with. Asking the government to step in and tax these transactions won’t curb online sales. It will only muddy the waters.

And isn’t business already complicated enough?

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

No time to panic

The phone call that interrupted the otherwise routine HR meeting wasn’t for Tracie Patten. The reaction it prompted from her co-worker, however, is one she’ll never forget.

“Her face turned white and she started writing frantically. Then she said, ‘Is she still alive?’ and I knew we had a problem.”

That problem, Patten quickly learned on that cold February day in 1998, involved a Techneglas employee being hit by a train as it was moving along the railroad tracks that run through the South Side factory’s grounds. It resulted in the first fatal accident in Techneglas’ 97-year history. The employee, Patricia J. Goodwin, died en route to the hospital.

Patten, who had only been working as Techneglas’ manager of corporate communications for a few months at the time, didn’t panic at the prospect of dealing with the fast-emerging crisis — even when a television news crew arrived with the ambulance. Techneglas had an emergency response plan and Patten, as well as the other managers involved in the plan, knew exactly what to do.

“Everyone sprung into action,” she recalls. “Our general manager was spokesperson and he began talking to the TV camera. Our VP of manufacturing issued a prepared statement to media not on site. We issued postings to all departments and info center boards [located at every major entrance in the plant]. Two of us went to the hospital.”

People moved fast, but they did so with level heads.

“They were even as smart as to lower the flag to half-staff in front of the plant,” recalls Bill Patterson, president of Reputation Management Associates, who spent 22 years as a journalist before he began counseling companies like Techneglas about how to protect their image during crisis situations.

“When the employees saw that flag, they knew what had happened. And what was the impression to them? This company really cares. Sometimes it’s the little things.”

Techneglas’ prompt action may have helped prevent a media circus from developing in the wake of this workplace tragedy. In fact, media coverage was brief — just the television report that day and a short article in The Columbus Dispatch the following day.

“From our perspective, we had a terrible, fatal accident; they covered it; then they moved on to the next accident,” Patten says.

Had Techneglas not been prepared to handle media inquiries, however, the coverage may have dragged on for days and caught the attention of more media outlets as reporters were forced to dig for details the company could not or would not provide on its own.

“When you say, ‘No comment,’ or hang up the phone, what do reporters do?” Patterson asks. “They become even more inquisitive.”

Often that leads to reporters sticking microphones and cameras in the faces of any employee, neighbor or passerby they can find who may have witnessed the crisis unfold — or simply have an opinion they’re willing to share about your company. That can be dangerous.

“Exxon is the ultimate, classic screw-up,” Patterson says, noting that the oil giant’s initial decision to ignore the media following the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska 11 years ago virtually ensured the situation would turn into a public relations nightmare.

“The media’s job is to report things that happen,” Patten says. “If you want to fight it, you’re just going to have misinformation out there.”

Being prepared is essential to avoiding negative publicity. And while it’s virtually impossible to set forth a plan to address every possible scenario that could touch your company, having a general crisis communication plan in place could save you a great deal of grief.

“To not have a plan is to be naive enough to say no one in your family could get in a car accident or be involved in a fire,” Patten says. “You hope that you never use it, but if your company doesn’t have one in place, you’ve just upped your odds.”

Here, then, are six basic rules to follow when dealing with the press during a company crisis:

Don’t hide from the media. Greet it head-on.

“Acknowledge that media is part of every crisis and work with them,” Patten says. “Don’t resist them.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t control the scene. Although only one media outlet showed up at the Techneglas accident site, managing that one television crew proved to be a group effort.

“The emergency response team saw a cameraman trying to get around the train to film this horrific site,” Patten explains. Since the cameraman was filming from a public street, Techneglas employees could not order him to leave. So instead, “they built a human wall and tried to block it off,” she says. “I just thought it was very distasteful. There’s a line between reporting and going for shock value.”

The human wall prevented the cameraman from crossing that line. Aside from that incident, Techneglas worked amicably with the press to get as much information as the company was certain about to the public as quickly as possible.

The same held true at Bob Evans Farms in 1993 when executives there were faced with a multitude of media inquiries following a police search of two properties owned by the company’s CFO, which turned up marijuana plants, bagged marijuana and equipment to grow marijuana.

“We were honest about it and handled it right away,” says Mary Cusick, vice president of corporate communications for Bob Evans Farms. “If we have executives involved in a situation that’s the opposite of our image or what our company stands for ... that’s something that never would’ve been tolerated.”

Keith Bradbury retired as Bob Evans’ CFO a week after the search.

“There was no stonewalling. They did all the interviews. What else can you do?” Patterson recalls of the Bob Evans incident. “When you take that first step, you solve 80 percent of the problem.”

Only use one spokesperson.

While the demand for interviews may be great during a crisis, letting more than one company representative speak with the media opens the door for inconsistencies in information.

In the Techneglas situation, although the general manager conducted live interviews and a vice president wrote the press release to send to other media, a third employee was with both the GM during his interview and the VP when he composed the release to be sure the same message was being conveyed.

In the Bob Evans situation, Cusick handled all media inquiries. Had the crisis involved a specific restaurant in the Bob Evans chain, however, management there would’ve been expected to speak directly with the press.

“It seems contradictory to have to wait for a corporate voice from Columbus, Ohio, to address an issue in Florida,” Cusick explains. “We work with the general managers and go through different scenarios and come up with the mean, hard questions media would ask. It’s important to prepare your management teams for that because the perception of your company can be built upon one particular, high-profile incident.

“It’s really important to be thoughtful about what you say so it’s as clear and succinct as possible in a crisis situation.”

Never go “off the record” with a journalist.

“Do you remember that tape of Connie Chung [interviewing Newt Gingrich’s mother]?” Patterson asks. “My motto is to trust no one.”

In a crisis, there is already too much confusion, he explains. Telling a reporter some information “off the record” and other information “on the record” can only add to that confusion.

“Tell a reporter only what you want to see on the front page of the local paper,” Patterson recommends.

And it’s better to say something than nothing at all.

“The story is going to be told,” Patterson says. “The point is, are you going to get your quote in there? Are you going to be able to say, ‘Our heart goes out to the family?’ If you don’t say it, it’s not going to get in the story.”

It’s not just what you say, but how you look.

Being prepared to deal with the media is not as simple as having all the facts, although that certainly helps. Presentation is important, too — especially when dealing with broadcast media.

Hanging your head when you speak, stammering for words, even looking nervous can detract, if not overpower, your verbal message.

“When that light goes on and the camera is in your face and they start asking tough questions and you have basically 10 seconds to explain, are you ready for that?” Patten asks.

Techneglas makes sure its corporate officers, as well as plant managers, safety managers, environmental managers and, of course, communication managers, get annual media training to familiarize them with such things as interview techniques, proper on-camera presentation and what to do and say when you don’t know the answer to a media question.

Preparation is paramount, agrees Cusick. After all, if your chosen spokesperson isn’t comfortable addressing the media, it will show.

“They get stressed about talking to the media and they have this crisis going on at the same time,” she says.

“The easy thing for them to say is, ‘No comment,’ and we don’t want them to say that,” adds Tammy Roberts Myers, director of corporate communications for Bob Evans Farms and a member of the Bob Evans crisis team, whose job it is to gather and disseminate appropriate information and resources in the face of an emergency.

“We work with them to come up with appropriate answers. We remind them about body language and the need to pay attention to that, particularly with TV interviews. It’s an ongoing battle for training ... but teaching them about the media helps alleviate a lot of that fear.”

If employees are involved, treat their families well.

Failure to do so can quickly result in negative publicity and even lawsuits.

At Techneglas, the emergency response team quickly located Goodwin’s daughter, who was also a Techneglas employee but not on duty at the time of the accident, and took her to the hospital. Patten even made phone calls from the hospital to Goodwin’s other relatives when Goodwin’s daughter was unable to make those calls herself after learning her mother had died.

Although Goodwin’s daughter later filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court to recover damages related to her mother’s death, Techneglas was not named in it; Consolidated Rail Corp. was the sole defendant.

“You have to do the right thing,” agrees Myers of Bob Evans. “The best thing you can do is keep in mind how you would want your family treated in a similar situation.”

Show compassion even after the crisis has passed.

Some media will follow big stories for days or even weeks. That’s why it’s important to show what your company is doing to help employees, neighbors or whomever was touched by the crisis cope with its aftermath.

At Techneglas, counselors were brought in not just to talk with employees who witnessed the train accident and the security guard who had to go to the scene, but to help anyone who was having difficulty dealing with the associated stress caused by the crisis. Patten says these so-called “after shock” meetings were well attended.

In addition, Techneglas paid special attention to the emotional needs of Goodwin’s daughter, Patten says, since the company didn’t want to lose her as an employee.

“We worked with her in counseling and gave her the resources and time she needed,” Patten says. “She did come back to work.”

In addition, since Techneglas’ crisis involved a worker’s death, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the company and recommended Techneglas install more warning signs around the railroad tracks. Techneglas went one step farther there, too.

“We put some additional fencing up as well,” Patten says.

“Perception is reality,” Patterson concludes. “You can affect public perception, but you have to be aggressive and take on the media.”

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.