Lauren Kruskall

Thursday, 20 November 2003 11:26

Paper money

When charities come calling, SCK Design Inc. doesn't sign a check and be done with it. Instead, the design firm contributes skill and product to organizations in need.

Its donations have included bundles of custom-made letterhead, invitations and banners valued in the thousands of dollars, removing that expense from the fund-raising equation for nonprofits in short supply of cash.

"The amount of cash we can afford to give is minimal, but our services are desirable and needed by most nonprofit groups," says Barbara Cagley, CEO of SCK Design.

SCK's donations are tailored to meet an organization's specific needs. In 2003, it supported the American Heart Association's American Heart Gala by designing all the printed material related to the black-tie event. The donation, valued at more than $12,000, helped the AHA raise almost half a million dollars.

SCK has also created print logos and Web designs for organizations including The Women's Community Foundation, The Cleveland Green Building Coalition and The Great Lakes Theater Festival.

"We try to go beyond the expected," says Cagley.

She is especially proud of her employees, who often take the initiative in giving back, and she encourages them to pursue their philanthropic efforts during work hours.

This year, Cagley and marketing manager/COSE volunteer award winner Patricia Ross each donated more than 100 hours of planning time for the First Annual Taste of Tremont, a free, outdoor event that featured more than 30 restaurants and attracted more than 5,000 visitors.

Because SCK is headquartered in Tremont, it had a unique relationship with this project.

"We could see the effects of what we did because it's right down the street," says Cagley.

Despite its relatively small size, SCK believes in giving to as many organizations as possible. That has been the case since Day 1 -- when the company opened six years ago, Cagley was already emphasizing a generous workplace mentality.

"We had little money, but we had our time and materials to give," she says. "We've never said no to anyone." How to reach: SCK Design, (216) 522-9740 or www.sckdesign.com

Friday, 30 May 2003 06:13

Car payments

The decision whether to buy or lease a vehicle may seem costly whichever route you take, but knowing exactly what you need could save you money in the long run.

"Buy vs. lease is always an individual calculation," says Bill Potoczak, co-owner of Mills, Potoczak & Co., a full-service public accounting firm.

Many CEOs are in a position to get zero percent financing on borrowed money and easily purchase a car. Others find the idea of a low down payment and slightly higher monthly payments more attractive.

Potoczak suggests leasing if you want:

* A frequent change of vehicle. The purchase of a car is a long-term financial commitment, but brief lease terms allow consumers to upgrade their model at a reasonable cost.

* A small capital investment. Upfront costs in leasing can be smaller than down payments in purchasing, so many who lease acquire a more valuable car.

* A trouble-free vehicle. Most lease agreements require frequent maintenance checks to avoid the possibility of a major mechanical disaster.

Potoczak suggests buying if you want:

* Unlimited mileage. Many lease agreements allow the car to be driven only a a limited number of miles each year, but if you buy the car, it's yours to use as you want.

* Ownership of property. At the end of a lease, payments are gone, leaving you with nothing tangible, but purchasing a car give you a future opportunity to sell.

* Maintenance freedom. Ownership allows consumers to take cars to the mechanic at their leisure instead of having to follow contractual appointments.

Also consider future losses when making automotive decisions. In 2002, the luxury auto threshold was $17,410, and anything above this cost is subject to depreciation limitation.

To avoid loss of value in buying or leasing, consider an SUV. The luxury car threshold applies only to vehicles with a gross weight of less than 6,000 pounds, and the size of the SUV exempts it from the luxury car rules despite its value.

"A lot of business owners have been buying or leasing Cadillac Escalades," says Potoczak.

It's important to figure out what you need in a car before you pay for it.

"Remember to look at all financing opportunities to determine the most inexpensive option" to meet your needs, says Potoczak. How to reach: Mills, Potoczak & Co., (216) 464-7481

Friday, 28 June 2002 07:45

Bankruptcy isn't the end

Filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy can cause the ultimate crisis in confidence, says Diana Lueptow, vice president of public relations firm Edward, Howard & Co.

Lueptow should know. She is director of Edward Howard's turnaround and reorganizations practice, a program launched last year to help support businesses in trouble.

The practice was established in part due to the poor economy of 2001, but also as a response to the special public relations issues that face at-risk companies -- the need to minimize negative impacts of initial Chapter 11 filings, restore management credibility and communicate fundamental strengths of companies and their turnaround strategies.

Dealing with financial difficulty is stressful, and often, the "ability to stabilize is a value CEOs don't realize," says Lueptow.

Nothing can replace a strong turnaround plan, but Lueptow says there are several things companies going through reorganization or a turnaround can do.

* Maintain a public relations campaign. You may need to rethink the paths of communication you rely on. Lueptow says executives often forget to address these needs when they're under the pressure of bankruptcy.

* Create a working communications system. Lueptow says one of the first steps should be to create a comprehensive system of e-mails, conference calls and Web site postings to disseminate accurate and current information to employees, investors and customers. This will help prevent rumors, maintain confidence and keep management credibility high.

* Find the positives. When reorganizing a business, solutions may include mergers or layoffs. Either can be emotionally taxing for everyone involved, but good public relations work can alleviate the situation. Lueptow suggests identifying the positives of reorganization and playing off those strengths.

Effective communication, says Lueptow, is the most important element of reorganization. When a company is willing to accept change while maintaining a strong public persona during a crisis, odds are it will outlive the financial troubles. How to reach: Edward Howard & Co., (216) 781-2400

Thursday, 20 November 2003 11:25

Sewn together

Although some VSM Sewing Inc. employees have only minimal sewing experience, they have helped hem caps for cancer patients and created custom-made sleeping bags for homeless children through the Kid's Sack program.

"We generated a big number of sleeping bags that year that were then donated," says VSM Sewing Inc. CEO Bengt Gerborg.

The primary function of the Westlake-based, multimillion dollar company is to distribute sewing machines and related software products to the market. Yet every year, VSM employees are assigned specific workdays to contribute toward philanthropic projects.

"Their sewing levels range from one to 10," says Gerborg, and everyone is assigned shifts throughout the day to help with donations.

Employee creations have included Comfort Caps, hats made especially soft for patients receiving chemotherapy, and Kidsacks, sleeping bags with pillows and teddy bears tied inside. Each year, VSM also sews Cozy Coats, fleece jackets that are donated to a local shelter.

Gerborg says giving is a team effort that requires staff participation.

"It's good for both parties," says Gerborg. "Our employees get to know the product and contribute to a cause."

VSM also donates some of its state-of-the-art equipment each year. Previous sewing machine donations have gone to the WVIZ and Providence House Holiday auctions, Laura's Home and the Karen P. Nakon Breast Care Foundation.

Gerborg's focus on company giving has helped strengthen ties between his own staff and outside organizations.

All employees, including sales representatives, accountants and support staff, look forward to shifts when they can sit directly behind the machines and assist with donation projects.

"There is a whole lot of generosity amongst sewers who really want to give," says Gerborg. How to reach: VSM Sewing Inc., (440)-808-6550 or www.vsmgroup.com

Friday, 25 April 2003 11:29

Aggressive pursuit

Not many manufacturers can say that 2002 was a good year.

But when other businesses in the industry were cutting budgets, Midlake Products & Manufacturing purchased a half a million dollar laser.

Previously, Midlake only manufactured hinges, but by making a significant capital investment, it expanded its product line to include doors, panels and sheet metal devices.

"We have been expanding our product offering and aggressively pursue new product lines," says Jeff Rich, president of Midlake.

And putting its recently obtained ISO9002 certification to the test, it is pursuing new business in areas it has never before explored, such as the medical industry.

Expanding was one way Rich chose to weather the storm; the other was to expand sales with the company's current customer base.

"The general economy has been our challenge," says Rich. "So our response to the economy was aggressive."

Midlake reworked its strategy to pursue only those sales that would make it profitable and that were a good fit for the company. "We are reintroducing ourselves to our existing customers," says Rich.

With on-time shipping percentages up from 75 percent to 93 percent and a reduction in costs across the board, sales increased 33 percent in 2002, a vast improvement from a net loss in 2001. And Midlake added seven employees last year, bringing the total number to 40. How to reach: Midlake Products and Manufacturing, (330) 875-4202 or www.midlake.com

Tuesday, 26 November 2002 06:50

Team effort

Sometimes it says more to measure generosity in hours instead of dollars.

Steve Brubaker, senior vice president of corporate affairs at InfoCision Management Corp., a teleservice and marketing firm, would agree, because he knows the employees at his company are the backbone of its corporate community service program.

In 2001, InfoCision staff volunteered well over 2,000 hours of time toward various programs, including 425 hours to the American Cancer Society and 520 hours to the Salvation Army.

"Our people step up to the plate every time," says Brubaker.

Community service inspires team spirit in everyone at InfoCision. Brubaker is proud of the 100 percent participation that comes with several volunteer projects, including the Special Olympics, where employees are transformed into athletic coaches of both the summer and winter games.

That level of participation has held steady for more than 10 years with InfoCision's involvement in the Salvation Army Corporate Harvest. Traditionally a food drive, employees this year will also donate toys and children's presents for the holiday season.

Only once, in 2001, did InfoCision not participate in the Salvation Army Corporate Harvest, in order to focus on the Sept. 11 disaster.

"We wanted to find individuals who had fallen through the cracks," says Brubaker.

The company worked with the Salvation Army branches in Boston and New York to find people who were affected only indirectly by the attacks, but were still in desperate need of financial assistance. Each of 45 families had no other support system, and InfoCision raised almost $300,000 for these victims.

"We feel it's a perfect fit for us," says Brubaker about InfoCision's involvement in community service.

This past year, one of InfoCision's call centers organized an employee cookbook filled with recipes.

The cookbooks sold for $10 dollars each, and all proceeds were donated to the American Heart Association. InfoCision also gave $13,000 to the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, including a personal $5,000 donation from CEO Gary Taylor.

"Employees enjoy getting involved with our clients," says Brubaker.

That could explain why the company raises more money than any other in its industry, almost $150 million for nearly 200 nonprofit organizations. How to reach: InfoCision Management Corp., (330) 668-1400

Thursday, 23 October 2003 10:51

Making a connection

Charles Rotuno would be happy if he never heard the telephone ring again.

That's why he built a company that threatens to displace the telephone as a necessary means of business transactions in order to revolutionize the auto parts market. Rotuno believes that bringing the auto parts business online has prevented human error from rendering the sales process inefficient.

"I firmly believe we have an organization that's built products to solve real problems in the automotive marketplace," says Rotuno, CEO of OE Connection.

For the past two years, his company has distributed software that simplifies original equipment auto parts transactions, allowing buyers and sellers to search for products efficiently.

OE Connection has been profitable for nine consecutive months. The elimination of phones, faxes and shipping on returns and reorders has reduced cycle time and produced an effective business venture.

"We continue to sign on dealers and see those dealers rely on the product more and more," says Rotuno.

There are more than 10,000 dealerships registered as members on the site, 10,000 users online every day and 12 manufacturers participating, including Jaguar and Land Rover. The subscription renewal rate is nearly 100 percent.

OE Connection's technology provides the market with both a supply chain location and an order management tool to create more accuracy in transactions between dealers and collision shops.

Software products available to qualified subscribers include D2D link, a parts locator and Collision Link, an order processor. D2D Express, a program that locates parts and fills out dealer back orders for manufacturers, is the next product release.

"We are owned by four outstanding partners that show a common vision for what our business is about," says Rotuno.

Although its partners Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and ProQuest Co. are automotive giants, OE Connection maintains a small business atmosphere by hiring local people.

Rotuno believes the problem-solving skills of his employees are key the success of OE Connection.

"The talent pool we have is second to none," he says. How to reach: OE Connection, (888) 776-5792 or www.oeconnection.com

Thursday, 19 June 2003 13:38

Getting down to business

Office attire may be casual all week long, but when it comes to business strategies, Martin Designs gets serious.

"We want a fun environment that strives to achieve," says Martin Myers, president and owner.

Founded in 2001, Martin Designs is a producer of social stationary for mass-market consumers. Products -- including journals, notebooks and photo albums -- are sold to Walmart, CVS, Walgreens and 1,500 other similar accounts.

Unlike the competition, Martin Designs is able to sell high-quality products for well under the $5 average established in the industry.

"We uncovered a market for quality stationary with upscale designs at under $3," says Myers.

Most recently, Martin Designs acquired exclusive formatting rights to produce stationary for both NASCAR and Nickelodeon Studios.

"It was originally going to be just a hobby," says Myers of the company which sold 20 million individual items in its first year of production.

Myers attributes his success to an earnest business model created to maximize sales. Some of his marketing strategies include offering fresh products annually, outsourcing production to minimize costs and creating a high-quality product at a low cost.

"We came across a niche in the market that had not been addressed yet," says Myers.

The company continues to achieve a balance with upscale products that can be distributed at retail locations.

Myers is thankful that Ashland, where the company is based, provides a strong employee base.

"I was able to put together a first-class organization in months," he says.

Employee loyalty and a relaxed atmosphere continue to support the company.

Martin Designs allows employees to dress casually in jeans and sneakers, and offers a lunchroom where employees at all levels in the organization convene. And Myers has "two or three of my dogs in the halls at work every day."

To reward employees, at least 10 percent of yearly income is distributed back to them. Myers believes that team motivation and rewards keep the office parking lot full, even on always-optional Saturdays.

"Central Ohio is a great place to own and operate a business," says Myers. How to reach: Martin Designs, (419) 207-8181

Friday, 25 April 2003 11:27

Taking the long view

The Minerva Cheese Factory is in its fifth generation of cheesemakers, due in part to its philosophy of taking the long view.

"The idea is to not get too high when things are good and not too low during difficult times," says Phil Mueller, a fourth generation business owner. "We take it one step at a time, looking at the forest, then concentrating on each tree one at a time."

Mueller knows first-hand the challenges of running a family business while incorporating family values. Only two years after taking over the business in 1976, he broke an agreement to sell all of the company's cheese to Kraft Foods.

Kraft wanted Minerva to make barrel process cheese, but Mueller refused because this method went against the traditional and natural production methods his family had used for almost a century.

Although the break meant his company lost 95 percent of its business, Mueller stuck to his guns.

"When times get tough, don't dwell on it; work longer and harder hours," he says.

The business has grown from six employees in 1935 to today, and Mueller continues to expand it by adding his children as fifth generation owners.

"One of our challengers is blending everyone into the business," he says.

In 2002, the company's output grew significantly, with production rising from 8 million to 11 million pounds of cheese. With the new technology, "we make between 40 (thousand) to 60,000 pounds of cheese a day," says Mueller.

Also last year, Minerva's baby Swiss placed first in Ohio in the 2002 World Cheese Championship competition, third in the United States and sixth in the world.

Minerva's gift box sales are increasing as a result of its Web site, www.cheesehere.com, which allows customers to choose from a selection of gift boxes or to make one up of their favorite cheeses. But Minerva also deals with large orders, providing bulk cheese for frozen entrées.

And how do you deal with all customers, both big and small?

"The challenge is to continue to be as efficient as possible," says Mueller. How to reach: Minerva Cheese Factory; (330)-868-4196 or www.cheesehere.com

Thursday, 23 October 2003 10:50

A room and a view

Fortney & Weygandt's employees say they can't live without the company's custom-designed administration Superview 2000 software. But cutting-edge technology is nothing new at the company, which is in one of the oldest, most traditional industries.

The main component of the can't-live-without-it-technology connects in-house and out-in-the-field employees with computerized timesheets, phone logs, daily field reports and schedules.

"The most successful part of Superview is the increase in efficiencies," says Chris Lutjen, marketing director at Fortney & Weygandt. "It allows supervisors to spend more time on the project than filling out reports."

Employees are equipped with laptop computers that allow them to use the program in combination with a fax and e-mail server. Electronic notes are posted and updated daily for all members to see. Users claim the program has saved about 60 percent of the time it took to fill out the hand-written paperwork.

Lutjen says the program was designed specifically for users who are not necessarily computer literate, so minimal instruction is required.

Bob Fortney, president of Fortney & Weygandt, attributes the efficiency of the program in part to his direct involvement in the design process. During development, hey frequently met with programmers to ensure the program would be compatible with the company's internal structure.

Although, Fortney hired an outside contractor to design the first version of Superview, the second version was created by the company's MIS department, which has continually upgraded and improved each version of the custom software. For example, the first version took hours to synchronize daily updated information, but it now can process that same data in minutes.

Fortney says cutting-edge technology is one of the reasons his company has grown and now generates approximately $70 million a year. But it's all part of doing business in this day and age for Fortney.

"You can't shoot for numbers, you have to shoot for improvement. Growth and profitability are a byproduct of that improvement," says Fortney. How to reach: Fortney & Weygandt, (440)-716-4000 or www.fortneyweygandt.com

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