Curt Harler

Tuesday, 29 January 2008 19:00

Assessing risk

Any company is only as good as its people. Loss of key managers or line staff, whether to a short-term hospital stay or permanently, will have a devastating effect on organizational productivity. However, efforts to develop a comprehensive employee health culture can have a dramatic positive impact on reducing health insurance costs and improving organizational effectiveness. The most important first step in heading down the path to employee health and wellness is to assess the health and risk factors of the company’s employee population. This is done by utilizing an assessment tool called a Health Risk Appraisal (HRA).

An HRA allows a company to identify trends related to employee health risks, states Doug Ribley, vice president of health and wellness services at the Akron General Medical Health and Wellness Centers. Programs and services can be introduced that help reduce the identified health risks, thus creating a healthy, cost-efficient work force.

Smart Business spoke with Ribley about the nuances and benefits of HRAs.

Where does an HRA program start?

I like to look at HRAs as the first phase in a two-phase process. HRAs represent the information gathering part of the process, while program implementation and health education represents the second phase. When an organization decides to improve the health of its work force, it starts by administering a health risk appraisal, which provides specific information on the health risks of each individual employee. This information is then combined to provide aggregate data representing health risk trends for the entire organization. These trends may identify common health issues such as low back pain, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and stress. Once identified and ranked, the company can build a strategy to reduce or eliminate the causes of these health issues.

What is involved?

Typically, an HRA consists of a series of questions that focus on medical and personal health history. It has three main categories: family history and incidence of disease, the employee’s specific medical history and specific lifestyle choices that impact health, such as exercise, smoking and seat belt use. This information leads to the development of a wide range of results-oriented programs designed to create positive change.

Most HRAs take 30 minutes to complete, however, statistical accuracy is important when the intent is to create change. This part of the process requires honesty, thought and a dedicated time commitment. Many organizations have had success by offering the ability to complete an HRA online. Of course, you can complete an HRA manually, too. Generally, a company’s HRA is completed over a two-week period of time and the results can be back within one to two weeks.

Should human resources handle this?

Typically, an organization that embarks on an employee health initiative assigns a leader and/or committee to develop and administer the program. These people will often contract with third-party employee health professionals to ensure that the effort is designed and administered efficiently and effectively. HR leadership usually assumes the responsibility for this effort since reduced health care costs, employee satisfaction, absenteeism and retention are HR objectives. Companies with employee wellness or exercise programs often have the program manager report to HR. Wherever the program resides, the idea is to motivate employees to improve health and reduce risks.

What is the return?

Numerous case studies report that it’s typical to generate a $3 to $4 return on every dollar invested in a comprehensive employee health program. The challenge is that the return doesn’t come overnight, but over time. Companies focused on quarter-to-quarter returns struggle with this consistent and ongoing commitment. Companies with leadership teams that are insightful and willing to invest over time favor HRAs.

What is the next step?

After a firm completes an HRA, the team puts together health education and screening programs to address results. The HRA is just the starting point. The focus of the applied initiatives are to get employees to embrace lifestyle changes that reduce health risks.

Can we make HRAs mandatory?

Some large companies have taken an aggressive stand on HRAs since they have the potential to lower health insurance premiums. Making assessment and programs mandatory will be challenged in courts over time. Today, there is no definitive answer to mandatory participation.

What does seem to work is individual incentives for program participation. For example, a $100 bonus to employees who complete an HRA. Some companies create rewards by lowering employee contributions toward insurance premiums.

The most important message is that embracing an employee health focus is the right thing to do in today’s world of soaring health care costs and a landscape requiring organizations to produce more with less. Companies that are committed to improving the health of their work force will find that it correlates directly with organizational success. But this is not a quick fix. You have to be in to for the long haul to reap the rewards. <<

DOUG RIBLEY is vice president of health and wellness services at the Akron General Medical Center Health and Wellness Centers. Reach him at dribley@agmc.org.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007 19:00

Technology working for you

The strategic vision of an organization as it relates to its underlying technology infrastructure should be “to support and enhance business objectives with a robust, secure and standardized high-availability computing environment while keeping technology spending and support costs to a minimum,” says John Schertell, practice director of supply chain management at Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc.

Outsourcing to a strategic partner enables an IT organization to focus its attention and budget dollars on delivering strategic applications to meet business objectives.

Smart Business asked Schertell about his vision for strategic sourcing.

What should that vision be?

To achieve strategic objectives, the environment must be planned, controlled and standardized with identified optimal refresh cycles for each type of technology. When implemented with defined, measured service levels for product requisition, approval, scheduling, delivery, installation and ongoing support, the result is lower total IT costs, improved end-user satisfaction and the desired environment is manifested.

The CFO, CEO and procurement management should be involved. Implementation of these initiatives is far more effective when the business stakeholders understand and support IT best practices.

Who determines best practices?

Industry organizations or consultants such as Gartner and Forrester determine best practices by studying IT organizations’ effectiveness and cost structure. ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is a library of IT best practices maintained by the United Kingdom's Office of Government Commerce. Pomeroy has more than 25 years of experience in driving efficiencies through best practices for IT organizations and consequently lowering costs.

How do you recommend strategic handling of people and physical assets?

Strategically, the user community must be required to live inside IT-determined standards and provisioning guidelines. Management at all levels must be educated to, and then embrace, the concept that the lowest purchase cost does not always equate to the lowest total cost of acquisition and ownership. If an organization must absorb the many costs of planning and holding inventory, issuing multiple purchase orders, managing the configuration and deployment process, and supporting basic levels of infrastructure, its costs are much higher than just the purchase price.

Assets should be deployed with standard images and asset tracking tools. The refresh cycle should be determined at the beginning of the asset’s useful life and planned accordingly. Service levels for provisioning, repair, support and disposal should be defined, communicated and measured. Efficiencies and utilization of technical staff can be attained by working with a supplier that can leverage resources and best practices across multiple organizations. The focus of IT should be on delivering strategic value, not infrastructure.

What level of service should a firm expect?

Every organization is at a different stage in its evolution. Consequently, service levels should be set to reflect the needs of the organization. Volume commitments will also drive the ability of the supplier to design effective programs. A company with less-refined processes and procedures will need higher acquisition service levels [quick turnaround] than a more mature organization that has its new-hire process integrated into its IT provisioning system, allowing the supplier to have a view into the pipeline of requests. Assuming an organization has committed to a procurement contract at a fair profit margin for the supplier, has embraced product standards and has reasonable internal processes in place, it should expect to receive a fully configured and imaged server, desktop or laptop system within five or six business days from placement of order. Expedited freight or on-location inventory can result in three-day or even same-day deployment. Planning and coordinating deployment of equipment to meet the scheduled installation date is actually the better practice.

Midrange systems and Internetworking equipment are typically more project-oriented. They can be planned and scheduled on a predetermined schedule.

What are the cost considerations?

When organizations focus on the base price of a unit from an OEM, they do not see the full picture; there are other services that must be performed, either by internal IT staff or by a service organization, such as Pomeroy. Comparing all costs an organization will bear internally if purchasing direct from the OEM to the cost of services of a reseller/integrator will normally result in a lower total cost of acquisition from the latter.

Not only will service costs be less due to efficiencies and utilization of resources, but resellers can purchase from the OEM at the same or lower negotiated OEM pricing, and then leverage programs and incentives available only to authorized resellers, further driving prices down.

JOHN SCHERTELL is the practice director of supply chain management at Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc. in Cincinnati. Reach him at (603) 498-1332.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007 19:00

A new year, a new you

Guilt drives most executives to make amazing fitness resolutions every year. In the end, unfortunately, the only exercise many of us get is pushing back the resolutions we made and pulling out a litany of excuses as to why we did not get them done.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Jason Ivory, health and fitness manager at Akron General’s Health and Wellness Center-North says one of the secrets to a successful program is keeping things realistic.

Smart Business spoke with Ivory about how busy professionals can stick to a workout plan.

What’s a reasonable time to set aside for a workout and still get some benefit without ruining my schedule?

Allow about one hour to accomplish an adequate workout. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes of exercise three to five times per week. The key to adherence is to schedule exercise with the same importance as a business meeting. This way, exercise time is on your schedule and you can’t double schedule another appointment. Many people make exercise a secondary priority so, many times, it gets bumped to the bottom of the list and put off until tomorrow.

Any goal that is obtainable or encourages a high level of adherence is a reasonable goal. I recommend focusing on goals of increasing activity as opposed to a numeric weight goal. A goal such as increasing exercise to three times per week is very feasible for most busy executives to schedule into their week. It is more practical than a goal to lose 25 pounds. Exercise regularly and weight loss will follow.

What types of exercise are best?

Any physical activity is better than no physical activity; so running 30 minutes a day is very acceptable. When seeking out an exercise program or information about exercise, I recommend contacting an exercise professional with a four-year Exercise Science degree from an accredited university. There are many myths and misinformation in circulation, so by seeking out the proper exercise professional these myths and misinformation can be dispelled and true knowledge delivered.

For the general public or someone who has been sedentary, the primary goal should be general fitness. Focusing on general fitness will allow any health concerns to be addressed and managed or corrected. Typically, someone who has been inactive for some time will need to gradually work into an exercise program and progressively advance to minimize the risk for injury.

For those individuals who are currently active and do not have health issues to address, it is quite appropriate to train for a specific sport or event. Training for a specific sport allows an individual to target muscles and movements that may not be addressed in a general exercise program. Training these sport-specific movements will enhance an individual performance and outcomes of that sport.

Will a good exercise regimen let me get away with eating seconds?

No. In most cases, the calories consumed in seconds are greater than the calories burned in an average bout of exercise. Exercise and proper nutrition go hand in hand when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. Just as it is important to seek out the proper exercise professional, it is equally important to seek out a registered dietician when it comes to nutrition information.

How do I benchmark a fitness program?

Benchmarks are key to a successful exercise program, too. Benchmarks will be different for each person depending on his or her specific goals. Getting a fitness assessment from a qualified exercise professional when beginning an exercise program will give you a baseline for comparison down the road. The data collected in the initial assessment will allow the exercise professional and you to set obtainable goals along the way. For a person who is new to exercise, one of the most overlooked benchmarks is learning about different exercises and the areas of the body worked.

Many people like objective numbers to use as benchmarks in their programs. You can track resting blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat percentage, muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. These are great indicators of progress. Lowering resting blood pressure, lowering bad cholesterol, raising good cholesterol, decreasing the body fat percentage, being able to lift a greater weight or a specific weight more times, and being able to walk or run longer or at a faster pace are all indicators of success. Finally, looking at how a person feels is a great way to track subjective progress.

How do I know when I’ve ‘made it’?

You’ve made it when you’ve made appropriate lifestyle changes that allow you to be physically active on a regular basis and eat a nutritionally balanced diet. When these two things become permanent fixtures in your life, the objective benchmarks will follow. The hardest part of a New Year’s resolution is making the permanent lifestyle changes needed to obtain other goals.

JASON IVORY is the health and fitness manager at Akron General’s Health and Wellness Center-North in Stow, Ohio. Reach him at jivory@agmc.org.

Sunday, 25 November 2007 19:00

Seasonal glut

This is such a wonderful time of the year — friends and business associates gathering together to wish one another well.

Tasty beverages raised in toasts. Tables straining under the weight of lovingly prepared goodies. Healthy lifestyles going straight down the tubes. But, the holidays don’t have to be a health disaster.

“Although holidays are happy times, they can be overwhelming,” says Karli Avellone, manager of group exercise programs at Akron General Health and Wellness Center West, warning that fitting more into already busy lifestyles can add unhealthy stress. “Be realistic with your own time commitments and with your expectations from others.”

Smart Business spoke with Avellone about keeping the holidays under control.

Why are the holidays a lifestyle disaster?

Typically, when people hear the word ‘holiday,’ they develop excuses to change their lifestyle to accommodate holiday events and dining experiences. Lifestyle habits are already developed prior to the holiday season. Therefore, when holidays are upon us, we should be able to continue the lifestyle we have already adopted, rather than make any changes. Moderation is always the best tool to use 365 days per year.

Does everyone eat more during the winter?

Not everyone, but many do. Because it gets dark earlier, people tend to be less active. Yard work and outdoor activities end or are curtailed in the cooler months when daylight hours decrease, leaving more time to sit around and eat. Rather than turning to food, one has to replace outdoor physical activities with other indoor physical options.

How can one resist that ‘one more’ serving of turkey or slice of cake?

We all know that people should not enjoy holiday eating just because others with them are overeating. Know your food intake limits as you eat and feel your satiation point. Enjoy the company you are keeping, not just the food. When you refuse one more serving, be truthful and simply say you have reached your limit and are full. Also, remember to eat slowly and enjoy each mouthful. If you eat slowly, others will be less likely to offer you more to eat.

What about alcohol? Isn’t some wine good for you?

Research has shown that moderate levels of red wine provide antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals before they get a chance to harm your body. However, consumption should be in moderate amounts only and certainly not in amounts that make us tipsy. Remember, antioxidants can be obtained from other food sources that do not have adverse effects on the individual. Also, remember to stay off the roads if you are feeling the effects of what has been imbibed. Many people consume more alcohol during holidays. However, once the holidays are over, consumption levels decline.

Can’t I just exercise off the extra calories?

To avoid gaining weight, calories expended must be equal to or be more than what is ingested. If you are eating more than usual, then you must exercise more than usual. For many, extra exercising hours do not fit into an already hectic schedule. Therefore, relying on exercise to control weight just sets you up for failure.

Executives host many holiday parties. How should one approach preparing for guests?

There are many delicious ways to eat healthily. Also, the way the food is presented affects its desirability. Fruit, cheese, vegetable and salad platters served with low-fat dips are enjoyed by all and are healthier alternatives to chips and fat-laden dips. Whole grain and other high-fiber carbohydrates should be included in the menu. Broiled meats are better than fried foods. Typically, the most popular foods can be prepared in healthy ways easier than by using higher-calorie cooking methods. Nowadays, a complete bar is too costly. Only serving punch or wine will cut back on excessive drinking.

Although employee wellness programs vary from company to company, newspapers and magazines issued during the holidays are full of healthy tips. If you need ideas on keeping yourself or workers healthy, enlist the power of the Internet. We can ‘Google’ just about any question we might have.

How about some healthy ideas for presents?

Instead of a bottle of alcohol or a box of candy and cookies, try a basket of fruit, coffee, cheese, etc. A variety of stores have these readily available during the holidays and can even ship them for you. Many people appreciate holiday ornaments. They can enjoy them through the years, and they serve as a remembrance of the people who gave them.

What about other safety precautions?

During the holidays extra caution goes a long way. Christmas tree, window and decorative garland lights should be turned off before retiring for the night. Avoid overloading electrical sockets, and avoid using exposed, wet plugs/outlets. Small ornaments should be kept out of the reach of small children. Candles should never be left burning unattended or near combustible objects. When expecting visitors, make sure your driveway and sidewalks are shoveled and de-iced to prevent accidents.

KARLI AVELLONE is the manager of group exercise at Akron General Health and Wellness Center West in Akron, Ohio. Reach her at (330) 665-8130 or kavellone@agmc.org.

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Balancing aging parents and work

As if there were not enough deadlines to meet in a week, many workers find themselves in a three-way juggling contest with home, work and, increasingly, aging parents.

A survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that in 1997, 22.4 million American households provided care for someone age 50 or older. Furthermore, 64 percent of those caregivers were employed. Many struggled to balance jobs and personal responsibilities. These numbers have grown — and will continue to grow — as 77 million baby boomers reach retirement age.

Smart Business spoke to Karen L. Talbott, president of Visiting Nurse Service and Affiliates, a member of the Akron General Health System, for some tips on handling the demands.

How do aging trends and caregiving responsibilities affect businesses?

The impact is significant, both in terms of personal stress and business costs. MetLife and the NAC found that workers with care-giving responsibilities often need to alter work schedules, come in late, leave early, or miss work altogether for relatives’ appointments or to deal with sudden crises. Furthermore, caregivers spend more time making and receiving personal calls. Their productivity is compromised by the significant personal and financial stress they experience.

When some workers need to quit their jobs for these reasons, employers incur the costs of recruiting and training a new employee. The study estimated these combined costs to exceed $11 billion per year.

What can employers do?

Employers can investigate services available in the community and provide information to employees through printed materials, seminars or individual counseling. They can encourage employees to develop contingency plans for older relatives, and provide employee assistance programs (EAP), which assess options and help to manage personal and financial stress.

They can consider changes to work policies and benefits to include job sharing, part-time status, flexible work hours, time off work without pay and long-term care insurance, and may offer a dependent care flexible spending account.

How can a caregiver prepare to make good decisions?

Understand the options and plan ahead. There are many levels of caregiving. It is important to understand each of them and to have a plan. Some individuals need minimal assistance and can live alone in their homes. Others need total care and must move into an extended care facility. It is usually more time-consuming and more expensive to respond to a crisis than to have studied and selected options in advance.

When is it time to intervene with an aging relative?

Signs indicating the need for an intervention include increasing confusion and forgetfulness, deterioration in personal appearance and hygiene, not taking medications as prescribed, poor judgment when driving, susceptibility to con artists or scams, or increasing difficulty with the activities of daily living. Another sign is inability or unwillingness to engage in social activities or enjoy hobbies.

What services are available to help a care-giver?

A home assessment is a great place to start. A program like Visiting Nurse Service and Affiliates can help elderly persons stay safe and remain independent in their homes. High on our list of priorities is to help individuals avoid falls and properly take prescribed medications, since a fall or medication error can often lead to hospitalization or a move to a nursing home.

A licensed staff can visit the person’s home and do a complete assessment. If the person is having a balance problem or is unstable, grab bars or improved lighting may be installed. The staff can assess for kitchen, fire and electrical safety. If the person is living alone, it may be a good idea to have a medical alert device. Telehealth units at home are also now an option.

Personal care aides can help patients bathe, dress, run errands, get to medical appointments, purchase groceries or do other tasks that require assistance.

A few hours assistance per day or week can relieve a lot of pressure and stress from primary caregivers and help them to be more productive at work.

Who pays for these services?

Each case is based on the individual’s needs and circumstances. Most elderly patients have Medicare or Medicaid benefits. Visiting Nurse Service and Affiliates also works with other agencies that provide funding for home services, like Passport, the Veteran’s Administration and private long-term-care insurance plans. Some individuals with life-threatening illnesses can access medical benefits available for hospice patients. Some services are private pay.

We work with families to help them understand their options, benefits and choices. We also do on-site informational sessions for employers to offer to their employees.

KAREN L. TALBOTT is president of Visiting Nurse Service and Affiliates (VNSA), headquartered in Akron. She is vice chair of work force development for the board of the Greater Akron Chamber and board chair of Summit Workforce Solutions. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kent State University and is a graduate of Leadership Akron. Reach VNSA at (800) 362-0031 or www.vnsa.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Efficient real estate projects

Today, more than ever, it’s important to avoid costly delays and unexpected overruns associated with providing solutions to corporate real estate needs. As vacancy rates drop, landlord-driven markets strike out at tenants with a harsh onetwo punch. Not only are rents on the rise, but the Tenant Improvement Allowance is shrinking while the cost of construction and related services grows.

Rick Martin, who leads project management activities for CresaPartners of Orange County, says he believes this should be anticipated, negotiated and actively managed as part of the real estate transaction process.

Smart Business talked to Martin about keeping project costs in line and the dreaded “gotcha.”

Where do you start with clients when planning a project?

You engage a real estate broker to find a building or negotiate rent. But it is risky to then use in-house resources to marshal the professionals, contractors and other service providers through the tangle of scope definition, service agreements, schedules, bidding, change management, risk management and nonperformance issues that are part of every project.

A key differentiator is our approach to actively protecting our client against unexpected cost and delays through the early and effective use of project management.

Do you have a process you recommend so clients can protect themselves against ‘gotchas’?

Project managers should bring to the table a five-step process tailored to the specific needs of each client.

It begins with the early establishment of a comprehensive master schedule that is inclusive of all transaction activities in addition to those related to design, construction, technology, furniture, fixtures, equipment and expansion/relocation. This important tool guides the efforts of the entire team and works as a ship’s rudder to keep the project on course and protects against delays and added cost.

A cost forecast provides a comprehensive accounting of all non-reoccurring expenditures including design, documentation, permits, technology, construction, furniture, fixtures, equipment, and move costs is developed by the project manager. This forecast helps the transaction manager analyze each real estate opportunity clearly, with a well-grounded understanding of the “out-of-pocket” costs associated with each location, not just the reoccurring cost of rent and operating expenses.

To determine the exact amount of space required by a business and to facilitate the creation of the cost forecast, a space use program should be developed. The project manager uses competitive forces to help select the most qualified architect to work with the team and develop the space use program — which is the accumulation, and tabular presentation of, objective and subjective space needs. Objective space needs include the size and quantity of private offices, work stations, conference rooms, work rooms, specialty areas, reception and all other space needs.

Utility and service needs such as unusual HVAC and electrical requirements should be identified. Subjective needs are also identified that may involve corporate image or indicate the need or desire to occupy smaller or larger floor plates, multiple floors versus single floor, single-occupant building versus a multi-tenant building. This tool provides the criteria that will ultimately qualify available space for consideration and develop a space plan to evaluate each building’s efficiencies.

Each transaction should include a work letter and a description of landlord’s work. Together, these two documents should: 1) precisely define the physical condition the space will be in when delivered to the tenant, and 2) define specific conditions and requirements the landlord (or its lender) may have related to the use of materials, architects, engineers, and contactors, restrictions on the use of the Tenant Improvement Allowance, and other performance-related obligations.

In a strengthening landlord market, each issue within these documents will have a direct impact on cost.

What’s your advice on change orders and modifications to the work process?

The preceding four steps serve to set the course. Developing and using an implementation plan is the final step. The implementation plan steers the ship through the straits and narrows of design, engineering and construction.

By employing current market knowledge of service provider capability, contractor availability and labor and material costs, the project manager uses competitive forces to assure the best teams at the best price.

The project manager should use past success and experience to craft comprehensive service agreements that protect the client and provide for open bidding of the construction — thereby assuring the highest quality and lowest cost. Acting as the team quarterback during this phase, the project manager should continually represent the client’s best interest: protect against inappropriate change orders, prevent delays and advise in advance of important decisions.

RICK MARTIN leads project management activities for CresaPartners of Orange County and exclusively represents users of commercial real estate. Reach him at rmartin@ cresapartners.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Keeping trade secrets secret

Both retailers and bankers know employees are likely to steal more of their goods or money than an outside thief. The same is true of a business’s intellectual property.

Smart Business asked J. Robert Arnett II of the Dallas law firm of Munck Butrus PC, what a company can do to protect trade secrets and other confidential information.

Can a company prevent an employee from stealing trade secrets when the employee leaves the company?

It is impossible to prevent all theft of trade secrets by employees, but employers can take steps to minimize the risk, including requiring employees to sign noncom-pete and nondisclosure agreements; training and educating employees about the importance of protecting and not disclosing trade secrets and confidential information; limiting access to trade secrets and confidential information to those employees who have a need to know, including password protecting files and limiting access to computer servers; conducting exit interviews to remind departing employees of their duty to not disclose trade secrets and confidential information; and checking what materials the employees are taking with them as they leave. Some companies require terminated employees to leave immediately, retrieve their keys and passcards, disable their computer network access, and have them come back after hours to clean out their offices under supervision.

Are noncompete and nondisclosure agreements valuable tools?

Yes, although they have their limitations and are best used in combination. Non-disclosure agreements prohibit employees from disclosing trade secrets and confidential information both during and after their employment, while noncompete agreements prohibit the employee from competing or working for a competitor after their employment ends. The noncompete agreement reinforces the nondisclosure agreement because it reduces, at least for a time, the former employee’s opportunity to use or disclose trade secrets and confidential information. You cannot stop a thief completely; however, these tools often discourage employees from such activities and provide a stronger basis for seeking relief from the courts if you are victimized.

What are the limitations?

Both have to be supported by consideration; the employee must receive something of value in return for his or her promises. Without consideration the agreements are not enforceable. Noncompete agreements also have to be reasonable as to time, geographic area and the scope of activities restrained, and must be connected to, or part of, an otherwise enforceable agreement. Historically, this has caused problems with enforcing these agreements against at-will employees. If the employee can be fired immediately without any reason, then the courts viewed the agreements as illusory, and nonenforceable, because the employee wasn’t really getting any consideration in return for his or her promises. However, the Texas Supreme Court recently decided that if the employer promises to disclose trade secrets and confidential information and provide specialized training to the employee — and actually does so — that satisfies the requirement of consideration and a noncompete designed to enforce the employee’s promise not to disclose becomes enforceable.

Aren’t trade secrets and confidential information the same thing?

Both require an element of secrecy, but trade secrets are a narrower category. A trade secret is information that is used in a business and provides at least the opportunity for a competitive advantage. Confidential information is any kind of secret information about one’s business. For example, a secret formula used in making your product is a trade secret. Your internal financial data is confidential information.

Trade secrets are entitled to greater protection. Courts are much more reluctant to force a company to disclose its trade secrets in a lawsuit. Trade secrets also are entitled to greater protection after they have been wrongfully disclosed. If a competitor innocently obtains your stolen confidential information there is not much you can do to them. However, if a competitor innocently obtains your stolen trade secret, you can stop them from using it, and they will have liability if they continue to use it after they learn it was stolen.

Is it worth the time and expense of litigating the theft of trade secrets?

The biggest factor is the value of the trade secret to your ongoing business and the potential damage if a competitor is using it. There are basically two remedies: attempting to obtain an injunction to stop the competitor from using the trade secret or further disclosing it, and seeking money damages. It may be important to move quickly and seek an injunction to minimize damage.

J. ROBERT ARNETT II has more than 20 years of experience in business litigation at trial and appellate levels in state and federal courts, as well as before domestic and international arbitration and is a shareholder in the Dallas law firm of Munck Butrus PC. Reach him at (972) 628-3600 or Barnett@munckbutrus.com.tribunals.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

A good start

For many businesses, the first line of financing is a loan backed by the Small Business Administration. Brian Barthelmas, vice president of FirstMerit Bank in Columbus, notes that small business is a big contributor to the nation’s economy, generating 50 percent of the private, nonfarm gross domestic product.

Smart Business asked Barthelmas for help getting familiar with the SBA process.

Briefly, what is an SBA Loan?

An SBA loan is financing provided to a business by a bank that is guaranteed in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Simply stated, the SBA provides a guarantee to the bank, up to a certain percentage of the loan balance, that the bank will be made whole if the loan defaults.

Does the SBA actually provide money?

All of the money is provided by the participating bank in the form of a commercial loan to the business. The SBA provides a guarantee that the bank will be repaid if the loan is not paid as agreed. On the rare occasion that the SBA provides direct funding, it is generally related to disaster situations, like Hurricane Katrina.

You always start with a participating bank. FirstMerit in Columbus has preferred SBA lender status. This indicates that the bank is deemed to have the expertise to work with the client directly.

Is there an SBA prequalification program?

Experienced small-business bankers generally do a good job of prequalifying a business, but it is by no means a credit decision. The bank makes the initial decision on the loan. If the loan is otherwise credit-worthy, but perhaps lacks collateral or is a start-up enterprise, the bank may approve the loan subject to an SBA guarantee. Then the application is submitted to the SBA for approval. Generally, if an SBA preferred lender makes an initial approval, then the SBA will approve the deal as well.

Is a written business plan required?

A written business plan is very helpful to the credit decision process, both for the SBA and the bank. While it is not required in every instance, any loan request that will significantly impact the future income statement of the business should have a business plan that tells the story of the company and includes pro forma financials that are realistically predictive of the company’s future financial performance.

Situations where business plans and projected financial performance are definitely needed include: loans to any start-up business, loans that represent relatively large capital injections for buildings or equipment, and loans that help finance an existing firm’s expansion into a new line of business.

Customers can receive assistance in preparing their business plans from local Small Business Development Councils (SBDC) or SCORE, which is an organization of retired business executives who help people start new businesses. Some universities also sponsor business incubators, which perform much the same service.

Will they demand my personal property as collateral?

The personal guarantee of the business owner is a given. Banks and the SBA are generally unwilling to lend to an entity that does not have the guarantee support of its owners. The SBA requires that all useful collateral is pledged. If the owners are not willing to carry the weight of risk personally, the bank and the SBA will not be willing to take on all of the risk. Often, business owners are asked to pledge their personal residence as collateral. This is especially important when lending for intangible items or items that are difficult to secure. These things include: franchise fees, goodwill on a transfer of business ownership, inventory and receivables.

How do I know when I’m ready to ‘graduate’ to a non-SBA situation?

Once the bank is comfortable enough with a loan request to approve it conventionally, they do so. Some of the conditions to make that happen include: being an established business, having a history of making positive cash flow, having collateral and having experience in the industry.

It should be noted, however, that an SBA loan should not be regarded as a substandard path for financing. It is a conduit for quality businesses or individuals with realistic business plans to obtain needed funds to grow or expand their business. Without an SBA guarantee, the loan request would contain an element of risk that would be too high for most banks to do conventionally. Therefore, the SBA mitigates this element of risk and allows the bank to take care of the client needs.

BRIAN BARTHELMAS is vice president of FirstMerit Bank in Columbus. Reach him at Brian.barthelmas@firstmerit.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Technology working for you

The strategic vision of an organization as it relates to its underlying technology infrastructure should be “to support and enhance business objectives with a robust, secure and standardized high-availability computing environment while keeping technology spending and support costs to a minimum,” says John Schertell, practice director of supply chain management at Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc.

Outsourcing to a strategic partner enables an IT organization to focus their attention and budget dollars on delivering strategic applications to meet business objectives.

Smart Business asked Schertell about his vision for strategic sourcing.

What should that vision be?

To achieve strategic objectives, the environment must be planned, controlled and standardized with identified optimal refresh cycles for each type of technology. When implemented with defined, measured service levels for product requisition, approval, scheduling, delivery, installation and ongoing support, the result is lower total IT costs, improved end-user satisfaction and the desired environment is manifested.

The CFO, CEO and procurement management should be involved. Implementation of these initiatives is far more effective when the business stakeholders understand and support IT best practices.

Who determines best practices?

Industry organizations or consultants such as Gartner and Forrester determine best practices by studying IT organizations’ effectiveness and cost structure. ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is a library of IT best practices maintained by the United Kingdom's Office of Government Commerce. Pomeroy has more than 25 years of experience in driving efficiencies through best practices for IT organizations and consequently lowering costs.

People and physical assets are involved. How do you recommend strategic handling of each?

Strategically, the user community must be required to live inside IT-determined standards and provisioning guidelines. Management at all levels must be educated to, and then embrace, the concept that the lowest purchase cost does not always equate to the lowest total cost of acquisition and ownership. If an organization must absorb the many costs of planning and holding inventory, issuing multiple purchase orders, managing the configuration and deployment process, and supporting basic levels of infrastructure, its costs are much higher than just the purchase price.

Assets should be deployed with standard images and asset tracking tools. The refresh cycle should be determined at the beginning of the asset’s useful life and planned accordingly. Service levels for provisioning, repair, support and disposal should be defined, communicated and measured. Efficiencies and utilization of technical staff can be attained by working with a supplier that can leverage resources and best practices across multiple organizations. The focus of IT should be on delivering strategic value, not infrastructure.

What level of service should a firm expect?

Every organization is at a different stage in its evolution. Consequently, service levels should be set to reflect the needs of the organization. Volume commitments will also drive the ability of the supplier to design effective programs. A company with less-refined processes and procedures will need higher acquisition service levels [quick turnaround] than a more mature organization that has its new-hire process integrated into its IT provisioning system, allowing the supplier to have a view into the pipeline of requests. Assuming an organization has committed to a procurement contract at a fair profit margin for the supplier, embraced product standards and has reasonable internal processes in place, it should expect to receive a fully configured and imaged server, desktop or laptop system within five or six business days from placement of order. Expedited freight or on-location inventory can result in three-day or even same-day deployment. Planning and coordinating deployment of equipment to meet the scheduled installation date is actually the better practice.

Midrange systems and internetworking equipment are typically more project-oriented. They can be planned and scheduled on a predetermined schedule.

What are the cost considerations?

When organizations focus on the base price of a unit from an OEM, they do not see the full picture; there are other services that must be performed, either by internal IT staff or by a service organization, such as Pomeroy. Comparing all costs an organization will bear internally if purchasing direct from the OEM to the cost of services of a reseller/integrator will normally result in a lower total cost of acquisition from the latter.

Not only will service costs be less due to efficiencies and utilization of resources, but resellers can purchase from the OEM at the same or lower negotiated OEM pricing, and then leverage programs and incentives available only to authorized resellers, further driving prices down.

JOHN SCHERTELL is practice director of supply chain management at Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc. Reach him at (603) 498-1332.

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Help is on the way

Many companies run an informal help desk built around one coworker’s knowledge of a system or program. Others have effective information technology (IT) help desks but end up paying serious money to an individual who roams the building from desk to desk solving myriad problems.

“The solution for many operations,” says Rick Veno, senior consultant with Pomeroy IT Solutions, “is to integrate IT service management through a company whose core competence is managing IT.”

Smart Business talked to Veno about the importance of first-tier help.

What is first-tier help?

That is simply the first point of contact for a person who needs help with a system or a program. Typically, a service provider runs a first-tier help desk from a remote campus location. An 800 number routes trouble calls to the help desk, which opens a trouble ticket and provides support. In some cases, where the client has many workers, there will be IT services at the customer’s premises along with regional support teams providing service for remote locations.

In this support model this service can be called level 1.5 support or ‘specialization’. PC Support is a good example of this. Second- and third-tier resources may be in-house, outsourced or in some cases, both. They deal with more complex issues or have deep expertise in particular areas.

What value is there to integrated IT service management?

Many companies are living with an ineffective or expensive help desk. There is real value to not spending resources on in-house IT service management. But first, the company must figure out what it needs. Many business executives read about ISO 2000 or ITIL and figure that is what they require. Then they need to ask whether it makes sense to build it internally or to have a business relationship with a company that can provide that service. That’s when the CTO needs to do a cost-benefit analysis.

What about application development?

Usually, IT service management covers typical help desk services — troubleshooting, logging, referring and escalating trouble calls. We also fill service requests and provision access. Usually it is limited to break-fix and request projects.

How does this fit a company’s strategic plan?

It makes sense to have one provider in the desktop lifecycle. This is where a provider adds the most value. From procurement to control to support to redeploy or retire, it has the ability to execute and does for many large and small business accounts. Not only can it talk about best practices for asset management, service management and service delivery, but it also designs a road map for tomorrow. You need to determine what processes to deploy first and the time frame to finish these projects. If you try to build a project without the core foundations of service management, you will work very hard and never get the ROI and benefits of a true service management program.

Isn’t an enterprise that outsources IT in danger of losing control of key IT functions?

No, it is a good solution for a company that knows its core competency does not include help desk support. If your associates are killing you on surveys about service and support, it may be a good idea to strategically outsource your first-tier help desk and keep the second- and third-tier workers in-house.

What can a business do to prepare its employees for the coming of an integrated program?

There are two groups to think about: the existing IT people and the rest of the company. Typically, you can retain those with subject-matter expertise as tier-two support workers — say for Blackberry support, SAP or POS. The generalists know there is a reason their function is being outsourced.

For employees as a whole, the change should be as seamless as possible. Don’t do a big marketing campaign about the changeover unless the previous situation was truly horrible. Simply transfer the same 800 number to a new location. Best practice says to leave the old system and the old data alone and start over. Try not to import a lot of old ticket data.

In any case, migrating a help desk means you must have a solid project plan, top-down support, strong relationships and a proven methodology. Take some time to analyze your category structure, use the project as an opportunity to modify second level support behavior in OLAs and, by all means, interview the associates and read associate surveys.

RICK VENO is a senior consultant with Pomeroy IT Solutions. He is ITIL certified and has more than 25 years of management and consulting experience. Projects have included ITIL-based process analysis and solution recommendations, service-level management implementations, service desk, incident and problem management implementations. Reach him at rveno@pomeroy.com.