Portland, Ore.-based WellMed provides clients with an online tool for managing personal health factors, as well as a link to other employer-based health services.
"We give employers a stronger benefit package," says WellMed chairman and CEO Craig Froude.
Froude says the company offers personal health Web pages customized to the needs of each employee. The page resembles the rest of the employer's Web site and presents the latest information, research and clinical trials specific to the employee's health risks.
"We target and deliver information to help each individual employee take action to resolve potential health risks," says Froude.
For example, the platform will send a message to an employee when her mammogram is overdue.
The program can have an impact on both an individual's health and a company's health care costs by lowering employees' health risks.
"In the health promotion industry, companies are seeing a minimum of two times and up to a seven-times return on health promotion activities," Froude says.
WellMed also facilitates communication among the health care provider, the employee and employer by linking the employee to employee assistance programs.
"Many companies have these programs in place but they are underutilized," says Froude.
Microsoft recently contracted with WellMed for its personal health management portal.
"Microsoft felt that it could increase productivity," says Froude. "Microsoft wants to keep its employees healthy and on the job."
Mike Taylor, principal with HR consulting firm Towers Perrin, says his company uses WellMed's platform as part of its customer offerings.
"Our clients say it is helpful and they like the way the information is organized," says Taylor. "Informed consumers eventually use fewer services and office visits." How to reach: WellMed, (503) 279-9010 or www.wellmed.com
"We're seeing our business customers logging on 24 hours a day," says Key Bank Senior Vice President in Charge of E-commerce Paul Ayers.
And it's not just the flexibility that's attracting customers.
"Clearly, online banking saves time and money," Ayers says.
Ayers says Key Bank's online banking portal interacts with most accounting interfaces, allowing companies to update accounting items practically as they post.
"Our business customers can update their general ledger functions as items are clearing, which increases efficiency," he says.
Ayers says online banking also offers businesses an efficient way to manage cash flow and investments and look for credit.
At Fifth Third Bank, Ryan Burgess, vice president and manager of the bank's Treasury Management department, says its Positive Pay online service is popular with business customers.
"Positive Pay sends a file to the customer via the Internet of all checks issued, matched with all that clear," says Burgess, so if a check was written for $100 and cleared for $1,000, a discrepancy report is initiated.
"This mitigates a company's check fraud liability," which is the biggest benefit of this service, he says.
According to Burgess, business customers are experiencing a higher incidence of check fraud, especially in Central Ohio.
"Police will not investigate a case unless the check amount is over $1,000," Burgess says.
And laws are being tightened so banks are not always responsible for reimbursing a client when check fraud occurs.
"The customer has to take steps to mitigate their liability," he says. "And one incidence of check fraud can be more costly than the Positive Pay service." How to reach: Key Bank, Online Banking, (800) 539-1539, Fifth Third Treasury Management, (614) 341-2553
"The needs of our business customers have not changed," says Tom Button, vice president of Park National Bank. "Business customers need bankers to be responsive and come up with new ways to help. They shouldn't have to worry about their banking relationships. That hasn't changed in the last 10 or 15 years."
Button says that despite the recent economic downturn, the most well-respected banks have not changed their approach.
"One of the key components to being a reliable banker is consistency," Button says. "Customer-focused banks treat customers the same way in good times and bad."
That means that while some banks may be loan-shy, reliable banks are still lending and growing.
"My sense is that competition in the industry is as intense as ever," says Button. "The good banks are reliable in terms of the loans they are willing to make in the current environment."
So are banks changing the way they do business? Button says yes, but dependable bankers have not altered their fundamental approach of developing deep relationships.
"Without a doubt, many banks have attempted to change strategic direction," says Button. "Some have broadened their product offerings by venturing into other business lines, many have developed an Internet delivery option, and some now use computers to approve loans."
That's not to say that the Newark-based, $4.4 billion bank hasn't launched its own high-tech solutions. The difference, though, is that it is still people -- experienced bankers -- who make the decisions.
"Some banks use a computer program to make loan decisions, but we feel that an experienced lender can come up with a better decision," says Button.
Sounds old-fashioned, says Button, but long-term relationships are the bread and butter of the banking industry. How to reach: Park National Bank, (614) 228-0063 or www.parknationalbank.com
D. Lewis Clark Jr. senior associate with Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP in Columbus, says there are five times more practicing Muslims in the United States today than there were 30 years ago, and 10 times more practicing Buddhists. While this diversity makes for an interesting workplace, it also raises questions for managers and supervisors.
"There are a variety of scenarios that can come up, such as an employee that wants to observe the Sabbath, or facial hair or garments that conflict with the company dress code," Clark says.
Employers may find themselves between a rock and a hard place as they try to be sensitive to all their employees' needs. The good news is that managers don't have to be theologians or legal experts to make thoughtful decisions on these issues.
"It is important to become informed about the beliefs of the employee," says Clark. "Find out what the holiday means and its significance."
According to U.S. law, employers are required to accommodate an employee's request based on religion as long as it doesn't infringe on other employees' rights. In other words, says Clark, "a manager cannot make one employee work a shift in place of the employee that has requested the day off to observe a religious holiday."
Clark advises employers to examine each request individually and gather all the facts before making a decision.
"Every situation is unique," he says. "All fact patterns are different. Examine the beliefs and analyze what you are able to do to provide an accommodation."
Clark says the bottom line is that employees have the right to ask -- and as long as the accommodation does not present an undue hardship on the company or other employees, it should be granted. How to reach: D. Lewis Clark Jr., Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, (614) 365-2700
If your company is struggling to answer customer calls, the solution may not be hiring more people -- it may be gaining extra bandwidth with a digital phone system.
"A lot of companies are not getting the most bang for their buck when it comes to bandwidth," says Time Warner Telecom's regional vice president Bob Miracle. "Digital phone service offers the most efficient use of bandwidth."
Like traditional analog phone service, digital communications systems serve the same need. But that's where the similarity ends. Depending on a business's needs, it can move to a PRI digital system or a digital trunk. According to Miracle, the PRI is a high-end system for large businesses with multiple communication needs, such as videoconferencing.
"PRIs increase data transmission speeds and serve many voice and data traffic needs," says Miracle.
On the other end, a company can call a local PBX service company and have a PBX digital trunk -- which only handles voice traffic --installed.
Not only can digital phone service increase bandwidth, it can reduce static and ensure a cleaner voice path.
"With our fiber network, we have clearer transmission channels, so we lose the static," says Miracle.
A digital phone service will not change the way your company is billed -- you're still required to choose a long distance provider. However, a fleet of services -- including Internet, data transport and long distance -- is available through a digital phone service company.
The best return for your digital dollar may depend on your call volume.
"Companies that do a large call volume business or companies with multiple lines usually get to the point when it is a necessity to utilize all their bandwidth," says Miracle. "Digital phone service can be the best return for the dollar investment." How to reach: Time Warner Telecom, (614) 255-2000
Experts predict a modest economic recovery this year, great news for businesses experiencing a slowdown during the recession. And Sandy Dickinson, Ph.D., J.D., and executive director of the Ohio Foundation for Entrepreneurial Education (OFEE), says that taking the right steps now can lead to post-recession growth -- or even growth during the recession.
OFEE, a nonprofit educational organization for small- and mid-sized businesses, encourages clients to employ several principles which can lead to growth.
First, Dickinson says, look at your customer profiles. If your current customers are unable or unwilling to buy now, shift your focus, either by demographics or by industry.
"You may find that another customer segment in a related industry is not as affected by the recession," says Dickinson. "And when the recession is over, you have grown your business, as your previous customers return."
Next, considering emphasizing service over product.
"Your customers are most likely looking for maintenance and repair services instead of new products," says Dickinson.
Randy Payne, president of Mansfield-based construction firm Adena, says his company has successfully employed OFEE principles.
"We brought some services that we were subcontracting in house," said Payne. "This allowed us to keep our employees busy, prevented layoffs, and we were able to be more competitive on our bids."
Adena targets its bids at schools, manufacturing and health care industries. By training employees to do tasks like roofing, previously contracted out, its work force remains busy and it can present lower bids on projects.
"Our employees are trained to do more, and we have a new competitive edge," said Payne.
And once the economy improves, the company can continue to use its employees' new skills to its advantage. How to reach: OFEE, 487-3675 or www.ofee.org
For top residential real estate execs Patrick Grabill and Harley E. Rouda Jr., business couldn't be better.
They've both been on recent merger and acquisition binges to take further advantage of a hot market fueled by the lowest mortgage rates in decades.
Grabill is CEO of Coldwell Banker King Thompson Realty (CBKT), which was created last July by New Jersey-based NRT Inc.'s acquisition and subsequent merger of King Thompson Realtors and Coldwell Banker Grand Traditions. When the merger was inked, Grabill proclaimed his appetite for growth. With the substantial financial backing of NRT, a multibillion-dollar real estate colossus, Grabill and President Mike Huntley are whetting that appetite with an initial buying spree.
First, CBKT acquired a pair of Licking County firms, Coldwell Banker McMahon and Guaniale & Johnson. A week later, it acquired Worthington's Century 21 Roger C. Perry Ltd.
"We are focused on a long-term vision," Grabill says. "We sensed it was the right time to grow, and NRT gave us the resources we needed. Now we can offer the tools needed to succeed."
Even as Grabill and Huntley were integrating their acquisitions, market leader HER Realty was working on a blockbuster deal of its own. Last month, CEO Rouda announced his firm was taking a different approach to expansion by merging with Cleveland-based Realty One and Cincinnati-based Huff Realty to create Real Living, the largest residential real estate firm in the state.
"Both the Cincinnati and Cleveland markets are experiencing positive growth," says Rouda, CEO and managing partner for Real Living. "We wanted to expand into major metropolitan markets in Ohio."
While the two leaders are taking different paths, their long-term expansion plans are fueled by the same thing -- a hot real estate market.
"The year (2001) is looking like it will be the best or second best ever (for real estate sales) in Central Ohio," says CBKT's Huntley, who expects the trend to continue in 2002. "January is off to a good start and interest rates are coming down. There are still good employment numbers in Central Ohio. There is no reason for this trend not to continue."
Central Ohio's balanced economic base adds strength to the local market.
"There are healthy industries, the state government is here and a major university. We are fortunate to be in this community," Grabill says.
A final element undperpinning the strong market is demographics.
"The city is relatively young, with the average age of Columbus residents at 33. There are a lot of people in the home-buying age, and will be for the next 15 years," Huntley says.
Building on local strengths
With so many favorable conditions, Grabill and Huntley felt the time was right to expand, and joining forces with NRT allowed their company to do so. But CBKT isn't willing to acquire just any interested party.
"We are looking for companies that we can fold into our current market and that are leaders themselves," Grabill says. "We can expand our markets by merging with companies that are No. 1 or 2 in the areas they serve."
It's that mutual benefit that is important in solidifying any deal.
"It has to make sense on both sides," Grabill says. "We're conducting ongoing discussions with a number of brokerages. Sometimes it's not the right time -- but we are constantly in discussion."
Building a statewide market
Real Living's Rouda's operations have benefitted from these same economic factors -- HER was the Columbus area's largest residential real estate firm last year in terms of deals and dollar volume, by a substantial margin over the combined operations of CBKT.
But Rouda is looking for growth outside the Columbus market.
"We thought it was the most natural step in growth, expanding in major markets in Ohio," Rouda says, hence the mergers in Cincinnati and Cleveland.
And Rouda says the firm is also exploring merger opportunities in Dayton and Toledo. Potential merger partners are companies with a similar culture to that of Real Living, he says.
"We are not targeting specific markets, but companies that are agent-centric, not brand-centric. It is our belief that the quality of the sales associates creates the quality brand," Rouda says.
That's a sharp contrast with NRT's approach, which is heavily invested in the Coldwell Banker and ERA brands nationwide.
Strength in numbers
While the expansion plans are different at the two real estate powerhouses, the force driving them is the same: the ability to offer the right technology and marketing muscle to good sales agents.
"Sales associates want to know they have a relationship with somebody that has the tools they need to grow and succeed," says Grabill. "And we need a professional, talented pool of people to have a better, stronger organization. It all comes down to quality people."
He says a lot of good brokers don't have the resources to provide associates with the latest technologies and training tools.
"We have been able to bring people aboard and provide them with education and training," Huntley says. "They improve their skills, and it's a win-win situation for everyone."
Real Living offers its agents nationally recognized marketing technologies that give them a competitive edge.
"We understand that our clients, as a company, are our agents. If we provide the agents with what they need to serve their clients, they come out ahead and so do we," Rouda says.
Despite the high-tech environment, Grabill says real estate is still a personal business.
"The tools we see having the most impact today are contact management systems, Internet sites and television shows," says Grabill, noting that CBKT has spent more than $400,000 upgrading its computer technology.
"The most dramatic change for both the consumer and the sales associate is the Internet site," says Huntley. "Now you can go on the Internet and eliminate homes that you don't like. The consumer is more educated about what is on the market, and it shortens the time the customer has to spend in searching. And the agents are more efficient too."
The more information consumers can gather on their own, the less time they spend searching for the right home, he says.
That was a key factor behind the development of the Web site recently launched by Realty One, one of Rouda's merger partners. Outgoing Realty One CEO Tony Ciepiel says Web-using homebuyers look at half as many houses as non-Web users. The time and cost savings to Realty One, and now to Real Living, are substantial.
"For us, this was a very logical business decision," Ciepiel says.
Rouda's HER operation also has been taking advantage of technology.
"All of our agents have personal Web sites that contain local, state and national listings," he says.
When a listing hits an agent's Web site, it is available on 3,000 additional sites nationwide. As soon as the listing agreement is signed, the listing is posted.
"The agent can load up to 16 photos of the property or the home when the property is listed instead of waiting for (the Multiple Listing Service) to start advertising it," Rouda says.
In addition, all of the documents needed to conduct business are online and can be transmitted at the touch of a button.
So can we anticipate continued mergers and acquisitions this year? Rouda says it's a definite possibility.
"The industry will continue to consolidate due to marketing technologies applied to a larger base of agents and clients," says Rouda.
And with Columbus real estate sales in January looking even stronger than in January 2001 (1,117 sales vs. 991), continued growth is almost a sure bet. How to reach: Coldwell Banker King Thompson, (614) 451-0808 or www.columbusohiohomesearch.com; HER Realty/Real Living, (614)459-7400 or www.herrealtors.com
Thomas P. Wagner, president of Accelerated Financial Planning Services in Columbus, says the best candidates for this insurance are people aged 55 to 70 who have $100,000 or more in assets.
"Average long-term care costs about $4,500 a month," says Wagner. "That's $54,000 per year," with an average stay of about two and a half years.
The policies offer tax benefits as well -- since 1996, long-term care health insurance policies are tax deductible, says Wagner.
Individuals can deduct 7 1/2 percent of their medical expenses (which includes premiums) over $1500. Employers that provide long-term care insurance to employees can deduct the cost of the premiums dollar for dollar.
"Employers can take the tax deduction and the employees receive the benefits," Wagner says.
Employers can offer different types of plans. A group rated policy is cheaper, but may not be portable -- employees may not be able to continue coverage after they leave the company. The long-term care insurance carrier tracks the experience of group-rated plans and raises rates based on this experience.
In another type of plan, the employee pays the premiums but the employer receives a 15 percent discount on costs because it receives and pays one bill, listing those who are covered. This type of plan is never experience rated.
Wagner says top executives should also consider purchasing long-term care insurance that offers a return of premium feature -- if the insured dies before using the plan, the premiums are returned to the family or estate.
"The tax benefits are twofold in this case," Wagner says. "If he or she purchases a $200,000 policy and pays the premium in a lump sum, he or she gets the tax deduction on the premium, and if he or she dies before using the plan, that money is returned tax-free to his or her heirs." How to reach: Thomas P. Wagner, Accelerated Financial Planning Services, 444-2330 or www.afps-iebs.com
"Originally when the government released the bill, it included some big increases," says Michael Petracca, managing partner of the PricewaterhouseCoopers office in Columbus. "When the final bill was issued, only a part of the increases were there."
The increases are due to a large tax deficit the state government is working to reduce, and some changes may significantly affect businesses. The biggest change will have an impact on companies that lease business equipment, says Rich Lundy, tax partner with GBQ.
"Basically the change, which is effective Feb. 1, means that businesses will need to pay sales tax up front on a lease, instead of over the life of the lease," says Lundy. "That includes machinery used for manufacturing," as well as cars, boats, planes and other business equipment.
To minimize the impact, Lundy advises companies to look at the risks and benefits of leasing and purchasing; leasing may not always be the most cost-effective option.
Another major change, which goes into effect in 2003, primarily affects Ohio financial institutions. Banks with subsidiaries that are considered brokers or dealers will no longer receive a tax exemption, and will be taxed like other businesses.
"It's all about planning," says Petracca. "Nothing short of good planning is more effective with this kind of change."
To effectively plan, build the extra costs into the 2003 budget. Look for ways to reduce costs in other areas or raise the costs of financial products to cover the expense.
Also in the bill is a tax credit associated with job retention. A company must have a capital investment project in Ohio at which it has had an average of 1,000 or more full-time employees for at least a year and for which it pays at least $200 million over a three-year period that includes the year the credit is claimed.
Investments must be made from Jan. 1, 2002, to Dec. 31, 2006.
According to the American Association of Retired Persons, there were 34.5 million people in the United States aged 65 or over in 2000. Even with breakthrough medical technologies, there comes a time when older adults may need extra care or attention.
For a working adult child, caring for aging parents can be stressful. Some may feel their only alternative is to take family leave or quit their jobs. Employers who provide information to the sandwich generation employee, or respite caregiver, can help both the employee and the company by retaining workers.
Lea Blackburn, a licensed social worker and administrative director of Riverside's John J. Gerlach Center for Senior Health, says more communities are offering adult day care.
"For working caregivers, adult day care can work the best," says Blackburn. "At our facility, we offer programs and health care from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m."
The Gerlach Center also provides transportation to and from the facility.
For older adults who wish or need to remain at home, there are many programs to meet their needs and ease the burden on their children.
"Just about every community offers Meals on Wheels," says Blackburn. "And for those that can afford it, there are home health nurses, too."
Home emergency response systems -- personal electronic devices worn around the neck -- can alert caregivers or emergency crews when needed. Homemaker services such as cleaning and cooking are also available.
"There are many people that don't know what is available in the community," says Blackburn. "Franklin County Senior Options is a free program that can fill that need" by putting people in touch with programs including support groups for respite caregivers and counseling.
Or employers can call the Gerlach Center, which provides information and referrals for employees whose parents do not reside in Franklin County.
"We will speak with the adult child and parent," says Blackburn. "And do a phone assessment. Then we link them to the services in their community."
Blackburn recommends families discuss options before the need arises.
"Have a family talk around the dinner table," she says. "Discuss care planning. Advanced directives can be filled out -- it doesn't have to be just for older folks." How to reach: Franklin County Senior Options, 462-6200; John J. Gerlach Center for Senior Health, 566-5858
Knowing the right questions to ask can make it easier to find the right caregiver.
Those caring for elderly parents while also managing a busy career and lifestyle have many options. To find the best care option, adult children need to ask the right questions.
The Administration on Aging advises asking these questions of a potential caregiver:
* What type of employee screening is done?
* Is the employee paid by the agency or the employer?
* Who supervises the worker?
* What general and specialized training have workers received?
* Whom do you call if the worker doesn't come?
* What are the fees and what do they cover?
* Is there a sliding fee scale?
* What are the minimum and maximum hours of service?
* Are there limitations in terms of tasks performed or times of day when services are furnished?