Jessica Tremayne

Friday, 26 December 2008 19:00

Reducing energy costs

The days are long past that energy was so

cheap you could afford to waste it. Now,

financial and environmental concerns have

made saving energy a priority for every

business. When done right, you can expect

to achieve a savings of 20 to 30 percent off

your current monthly utility bill, with minimal investment.

Getting started on saving can be as simple as making employees aware that energy efficiency is a priority for your company. Employees who regularly turn off

lights and computers at home don’t bring

that same mindset to work. By recruiting

employees to help manage your company’s energy usage, you can start to save

money.

Fifty-three percent of readers surveyed

by Smart Business say they expect energy

costs to continually increase over the next

12 to 18 months. A dedication to energy

efficiency is necessary to maximize savings, as energy experts say halfhearted

efforts get halfhearted results.

“Businesses often don’t realize they are

being penalized by power companies for

excessive energy consumption even

though it appears in black and white in the

monthly statement,” says Mike Wissman,

president, Northern Kentucky Electric

Service. “This above all other reasons warrants energy conservation.”

Why managing energy use is

important

Energy efficiency is a prime example of

what you don’t know can hurt you. Few

people are aware that energy-efficient business desktop computers are available that

cost about $10 a year to operate and are

about 75 percent more efficient than typical PCs. Installing certain models of smart

thermostats allows you to program them

wirelessly through the Internet, allowing

for temperature adjustments without physically being at the facility. Also, new smart

electric meters translate energy wattage

use into dollars and allow you to track

energy use online.

Applying new technology can help, but

don’t overlook the traditional things.

“When initiating an energy-efficiency

plan, start with simple things like super

insulating walls and ceilings, lighting systems, replacing single-pane windows, and using ENERGY STAR appliances,” says

Steve Melink, president, Melink Corp., an

energy solutions company. “An average

Cincinnati building costs $2 to operate per

square foot annually, but being energy efficient can reduce that to 50 cents.”

ENERGY STAR, an Environmental

Protection Agency and U.S. Department of

Energy program, along with your utility

provider and local city hall can help you

reduce energy waste by providing regional

energy-efficiency tips, financial incentives

and energy audits of facilities. ENERGY

STAR endorses more than 50 types of products, which are identifiable by a label that

indicates the amount of energy it will

require during average use and will tell you

the savings you can expect by choosing

that product over products that aren’t

approved by the ENERGY STAR program.

Purchasing the proper equipment and carrying out good habits will reduce your

energy expenses exponentially. For example, you will use 30 to 35 percent less energy using an ENERGY STAR battery charger or power adapter over conventional

products.

“A lot of times, there’s no handle on energy efficiency and energy costs at the CEO

level,” says Chris Sharpe, lead product

manager, Duke Energy. “Upper management needs to get involved and start

benchmarking their facility against others.”

By changing purchasing habits and being

more cautious of efficient equipment operation, you’ll immediately reduce your energy bill. By purchasing ENERGY STAR-qualified products, you’ll use about half the

amount of electricity that would be used

without the efficient product. For example,

when a computer is placed in sleep mode,

it uses 75 percent less energy and a copier

uses 40 percent less energy.

Most businesses use 25 percent of their

energy on lighting. Compact fluorescent

bulbs last longer than traditional bulbs and

use 75 percent less energy. Even if it means

renovating your entire lighting system,

you’ll see a return on your investment in

anywhere from five months to three years.

What you need to know

Performing an energy audit of your business is the first step. This is often performed

for free or at a minimal cost through your utility provider. In this audit, you’ll learn

what areas of your business are using the

most energy. You’ll then be able to work on

a strategy to reduce waste.

By visiting the ENERGY STAR Web site at

www.energystar.gov, you can compare your

company’s energy use to similarly sized companies within your industry and region.

“Your utility company is the first place to

look for guidance when looking to become

more energy efficient,” Sharpe says. “Many

offer incentive programs and can direct you

to other organizations who offer rebates to

make the energy-efficient transition more

palatable.”

After your energy audit, you’ll need to

strategize a plan of action and goals, and

then formally deliver the message to

employees.

“You first need to survey your facility to

determine which, if any, components will

need upgraded,” Wissman says. “Next, set a

goal for the amount of feasible reductions

you want to achieve with help from your

utilities provider or ENERGY STAR. Then

set a budget based upon payback time for

the savings.”

Assigning an employee to manage energy

initiatives and communicate them to the

staff will help keep everyone involved and

informed about the process. You may want

to take things a step further and provide

training to employees that can explain

operating methods and procedures to

reduce energy use, along with ways to

monitor and report collected data. ENERGY STAR provides free online training sessions for employees and is a good place to

start.

“Seek employee education through your

utility provider, ENERGY STAR or city

hall,” Sharpe says. “Educating your staff

can even be as simple as finding a reputable local source through an online

search.

“Energy costs are predicted to continue

to rise, so looking at ways to streamline

your energy use now is a smart move.

Many companies are inadvertently sloppy

with use and have formed bad habits of

energy use that really hit the pocketbook.”

When establishing a project timeline,

consider attainable energy grants, rebates

and tax breaks weighed against necessary

operational changes to accomplish goals.

Once you know what you need to change

to be more efficient and what finances you

have available, you’ll be able to better chart

progress and predict the time frame for the

return on your investment.

“You can save 10 to 25 percent on energy

bills by being more energy conscious and

another 25 to 50 by utilizing the best equipment and materials,” Melink says. “You can

go down to nearly zero dollars by using

renewable solar and wind — after the time

elapses for the return on your investment.”

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

The road less traveled

With tough economic times taking a toll on all of us, your first instinct to rising business travel costs might be to eliminate the expense across the board.

Don’t do it.

Travel leads to growth and cutting it is counterproductive. If you’re looking to adhere to a more realistic plan, consider reevaluating your travel policy and consulting with a travel management company to save 20 to 30 percent on travel while keeping worthy trips in the budget.

Travel is the second-largest controllable cost for the average U.S. business, seated between data collection and salaries, yet most companies have little or no management of it.

While your company may have an unofficial policy instructing employees to ‘get the cheapest rate,’ a policy that isn’t managed and enforced is equivalent to not having one at all.

A Smart Business poll showed that 75 percent of respondents’ employees are responsible for making their own travel arrangements. The problem is, if your employees are utilizing online booking agencies or different vendors, your company is likely losing out in the long run. If you lump your travel needs together with selected vendors and submit requests for proposals, your annual negotiated rate will outweigh nickel-and-dime savings earned on a case-by-case basis.

Why travel management is important

If you take steps to retain a travel budget and manage it efficiently, you will most likely see a significant return on your investment.

“Companies can have a forceful mandate or a gentle push in their travel policy, but either way, it must be written,” says Lea Ann Meador, travel manager consultant serving on the Dallas/Fort Worth Business Travel Association board. “The most crucial component of a successful travel program is the support of senior management, including the CEO. They’re the ones who can put teeth into the policy, control the budgetary framework under which the travel program operates and have the power to back any corporate travel initiative.”

Sixty-nine percent of companies polled in an October Association of Corporate Travel Executives survey say they will be spending less or the same on travel in 2009.

“Businesses citing lateral travel expenditures in 2009 will likely just be traveling less as the cost of travel has climbed significantly,” says Susan Gurley, executive director, Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “Even those who say they are spending more are barely keeping up with the increase.”

You’d like to think your employees have the company’s best interest in mind, but statistics show companies that place a travel manager or an outside agency in charge of travel finances stay within the confines of their budgets while employee-handled travel has a less successful return on investment.

You need to take a proactive approach to managing your travel costs if you expect to get bottom-line results for a minimum of expense.

But being smart about your budget entails more than waiting for the computerized ping alert of a reduced airline fee like one of Pavlov’s dogs. While airfare is the most costly aspect of travel, you don’t want to arbitrarily eliminate it.

“The first step is to differentiate between strategic and nonstrategic travel,” Gurley says. “Strategic travel generates revenue while nonstrategic travel is anything that results in cost but has no substantial gain in revenue.”

In most cases, meetings with customers are justifiable, as there is a direct correlation to revenue gains. On the other hand, meeting with the head of the Omaha office may not have much of an effect on your bottom line this year, so consider cutting that — and other trips like it — out of the budget. Use videoconferencing or teleconferencing equipment for these internal meetings whenever possible.

Why? Because internal travel can account for about 40 percent of a business’s travel. Don’t worry, technology has come a long way since the early days of choppy robotic movements and out-of-sync voices. Look into Skype and WebEx as a couple of travel alternatives that could save you money while still keeping you in touch with your people in a more personal manner.

What you need to know

Getting your travel budget under control starts with the assembly of an in-house team of policymakers who vow to prevent travel anarchy while clearly defining your terms and expectations. A good policy will answer why travel management is necessary, detail the value of expectations, cite the requirements and give examples of useful practices.

The team involved in policy planning should include you, a scheduler, travelers and the finance team. After the policy is made, one person should oversee its enforcement and keep up to date on travel industry policy. This could be a part-time or full-time position based on need.

A realistic travel budget must be based on destination costs versus a flat-rate figure that is impossible to meet in all travel locations. A rate for things like car rental, hotel and food must be figured depending on the median rates in that city.

A policy needs to be revised annually to adjust to economic and company needs, and some flexibility is required in any plan. For example, an employee’s time may be more valuable than the cost savings from putting the person on a later flight, especially if arriving later could jeopardize a meeting with a client.

Also, you want to make sure the employee’s time is used efficiently on any business trip. A policy should entail what is expected of employees during travel and ways they should make the best use of time outside of the office. Meeting with multiple clients during a conference or calling on one located en route are a couple of ideas to maximize the value of a trip.

“We have gotten more creative with transportation logistics,” says Russell Wyman, marketing coordinator, Ultimate Ventures. “We handle many off-site activities in Dallas for local and visiting businesses. With the cost of fuel and our dependency on frequent traveling, we will continue to package services differently to maintain clients’ interest, while being cost-effective.”

Some businesses use online booking agencies, believing their rates will be lowest and eliminate travel management company fees, which can account for 3 percent of all travel costs. But the majority of costs — 97 percent — goes to airfare, hotel and car rental, which is the same arena in which a travel manager will save money.

While travel costs are unlikely to decrease anytime soon, getting through the initial pain may be the biggest challenge facing business.

“The cost increase is felt the hardest initially,” Gurley says. “However, increases and a poor economy have resulted in a reduction in routes traveled — about 12 percent fewer flights are available today than even a year ago. This figure will increase and companies that considered reducing travel to be cost-effective will find flying increasingly less attractive into 2009. Optimistically speaking, the economy will eventually level out but being prepared will mean better opportunities.”

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

Evaluating business travel

With tough economic times taking a toll on

all of us, your first instinct to rising business

travel costs might be to eliminate the

expense across the board.

Don’t do it.

Travel leads to growth and cutting it is

counterproductive. If you’re looking to

adhere to a more realistic plan, consider reevaluating your travel policy and consulting

with a travel management company to save

20 to 30 percent on travel while keeping worthy trips in the budget.

Travel is the second-largest controllable

cost for the average U.S. business, seated

between data collection and salaries, yet

most companies have little or no management of it.

While your company may have an unofficial policy instructing employees to ‘get the

cheapest rate,’ a policy that isn’t managed

and enforced is equivalent to not having one

at all.

A Smart Business poll showed that 61 percent of respondents’ employees are responsible for making their own travel arrangements. The problem is, if your employees are

utilizing online booking agencies or different

vendors, your company is likely losing out in

the long run. If you lump your travel needs

together with selected vendors, and submit

requests for proposals, your annual negotiated rate will outweigh nickel-and-dime savings earned on a case-by-case basis.

Why travel management

is important

If you take steps to retain a travel budget

and manage it efficiently, you will most

likely see a significant return on your

investment.

“We really can’t cut back on travel,” says

Pete Costanzo, executive vice president,

Marsh Inc. “Ninety percent of our clients

are outside of Cincinnati, spread from the

West Coast to the East [Coast]. There’s

nothing like working with professionals to

make sure your travel costs are the best

value for the dollar — and we have looked

elsewhere.”

Sixty-nine percent of companies polled in

an October Association of Corporate Travel

Executives survey say they will be spending

less or the same on travel in 2009.

“The cost of travel is crazy,” Costanzo says.

“And for the $1,100 fare you might get some

juice and a cookie in transit. Our 2008 travel

budget increased by 15 percent this year, but

we want to get it back down to our 2007 level

for 2009. We need to go through our schedule

to see what we can alter.”

You’d like to think your employees have the

company’s best interest in mind, but statistics

show companies that place a travel manager

or an outside agency in charge of travel

finances stay within the confines of their

budgets while employee-handled travel has a

less successful return on investment.

You need to take a proactive approach to managing your travel costs if you expect to get bottom-line results for a minimum of expense.

But being smart about your budget entails

more than waiting for the computerized ping

alert of a reduced airline fee like one of

Pavlov’s dogs. While airfare is the most costly aspect of travel, you don’t want to arbitrarily eliminate it.

“The first step is to differentiate between

strategic and nonstrategic travel,” says

Susan Gurley, executive director,

Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

“Strategic travel generates revenue while

nonstrategic travel is anything that results in

cost but has no substantial gain in revenue.”

In most cases, meetings with customers are

justifiable, as there is a direct correlation to

revenue gains. On the other hand, meeting

with the head of the Omaha office may not

have much of an effect on your bottom line

this year, so consider cutting that — and other

trips like it — out of the budget. Use video-conferencing or teleconferencing equipment

for these internal meetings whenever possible.

Why?

Because internal travel can account for

about 40 percent of a business’s travel.

Don’t worry, technology has come a long

way since the early days of choppy robotic

movements and out-of-sync voices. Look

into Skype and WebEx as a couple of

travel alternatives that could save you

money while still keeping you in touch

with your people in a more personal

manner.

What you need to know

Getting your travel budget under control

starts with the assembly of an in-house team

of policymakers who vow to prevent travel

anarchy while clearly defining your terms

and expectations. A good policy will answer

why travel management is necessary, detail

the value of expectations, cite the requirements and give examples of useful practices.

“The policy should state that every traveler

takes the lowest fares within the defined

parameters,” says Terry Brennan, president,

Williamsburg — American Express Travel.

“Travelers should stay at midsized hotel properties and rent midsized cars. Everyone

should deal with an in-house policy administrator, which will keep organization.”

The team involved in policy planning should

include you, a scheduler, travelers and the

finance team. After the policy is made, one

person should oversee its enforcement and

keep up to date on travel industry policy. This

could be a part-time or full-time position based

on need.

A realistic travel budget must be based on

destination costs versus a flat-rate figure that

is impossible to meet in all travel locations. A

rate for things like car rental, hotel and food

must be figured depending on the median

rates in that city.

A policy needs to be revised annually to

adjust to economic and company needs, and

some flexibility is required in any plan. For

example, an employee’s time may be more

valuable than the cost savings from putting

the person on a later flight, especially if arriving later could jeopardize a meeting with a

client.

Also, you want to make sure the employee’s time is used efficiently on any business

trip. A policy should entail what is expected

of employees during travel and ways they

should make the best use of time outside of

the office. Meeting with multiple clients during a conference or calling on one located en

route are a couple of ideas to maximize the

value of a trip.

Some businesses use online booking agencies, believing their rates will be lowest and

eliminate travel management company fees,

which can account for 3 percent of all travel

costs. But the majority of costs — 97 percent

— goes to airfare, hotel and car rental, which

is the same arena in which a travel manager will save money.

“A major point often overlooked is the

added safety a travel manager or an agency

provides a traveler,” says Ron Pio, sales

executive, AAA corporate travel. “In emergent situations, a traveler can rely on someone who knows how to get a flight out fast

and act as your advocate in any situation.”

While travel costs are unlikely to decrease

anytime soon, getting through the initial pain

may be the biggest challenge facing business.

“The cost increase is felt the hardest initially,” Gurley says. “However, increases and

a poor economy have resulted in a reduction

in routes traveled — about 12 percent fewer

flights are available today than even a year

ago. This figure will increase, and companies

that considered reducing travel to be cost-effective will find flying increasingly less

attractive into 2009. Optimistically speaking,

the economy will eventually level out, but

being prepared will mean better opportunities.”

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Focus on success

When Brad Dennison joined nFocus Technologies Inc., he needed to boost revenue for the slow-growing business.

The business solutions provider had a lot to offer and boasted a healthy client base, but it needed to counteract its economic stalemate. By implementing a plan to work with customers who shared lateral growth goals, he produced new products while learning from other experts, allowing all parties to grow.

“Linking the company name to another industry requires careful planning with familiar and reputable companies,” Dennison says. “Keep in mind your goals and choose wisely.”

With his plan in place, the managing director initially drafted a few companies with the same ideology and then gained momentum by adding more than 40 partner companies to his arsenal.

Smart Business spoke with Dennison about how to grow your business by partnering with your customers.

Q. How do you decide which customers to partner with?

The goal is to create a virtual product development team that builds the next generation tool. You can choose a partner company in any industry or business that has good leadership, employee retention plan or ideas to increase revenue, then you implement their knowledge into your company to suit your industry.

All partners benefit as the product is tailored to each of their needs, benefiting from each other’s strengths. The process includes a little risk-taking. All partnerships may not be as profitable as initially thought, but to keep on doing the same thing while expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Ultimately, the plan propels success.

Q. How do you approach customers with the offer of a partnership?

First, you must find a customer that has similar growth goals, is respected in their industry and has something you can learn from. Make them an offer that also serves as a contract explaining the details of the partnership.

Give them special incentive pricing on your products. Once an agreement is made, be sure to keep the lines of communication open. Any company can make an agreement incentive by emphasizing that the partners will be learning from other experts by sharing their knowledge.

Q. How many customer/partner companies are necessary to make the plan work?

Just one partner customer doesn’t generally work. Normally, a team of three to five makes the most sense so the shared ideas lead to a better product, not just a common product or solution for one of the partners.

The partners benefit as they get the product on the ground floor and fashion it to their needs while we all profit more. Knowing your own goals will help decide who you choose to be in your network. However, ultimately, quality of partnerships overrides quantity.

Q. How long does it take to begin benefiting from partnerships?

It depends on how aggressively each party pursues the goals. It starts with a meeting of decision-makers in each of the partner companies. It can be after one meeting or after six.

From start to finish, developing a new tool can take anywhere from three to nine months. At a meeting, all partners must come to a mutual agreement on procedures so all expectations are met on each side.

The partnership plan is about building relationships, so digital or phone communication doesn’t cut it. We need to learn their business, and they need to know our people. Our goals are focused on what is needed to make our companies more successful on the segment of business being covered.

The main partner provides feedback on the best practices and how they can leverage these within their existing foundation. Each partner walks away from meetings with information they can implement in their company.

Q. How do you get employees involved with the partnership plan?

Employees’ understanding of the sequence of steps on the journey to success will deliver maximum business benefits. They are your greatest asset. Pass as much down as possible to them, so you can move forward as a company leader.

A matrix organization with employees dedicated to strong teamwork is intricate in the function of partnerships. Your employees will be implementing the tools produced from partnerships, so it’s vital they understand the company’s goals and are managed.

Keep them informed of plans with newsletters, e-mails and meetings. Make sure they understand why decisions were made so they’re on board. The key is to follow up with the goals and reinforce them.

Like other aspects of the business, employees need to work as a team regarding implementation of partnership products.

HOW TO REACH: nFocus Technologies Inc., (317) 546-0869 or www.nfocustechnologies.com

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Lost and found

If your IT guru has told you that something called search engine optimization is the way to go, but you’re still foggy about what it is or why you should care, consider this: When done right, SEO could double your return on investment and help you acquire scores of new customers.

Search engine optimization in its most basic form is simply about making your Web site appear higher up in search results from sites like Google and Yahoo.

Search engines are the starting point of almost all online activity, second only to e-mail, yet more than half of readers surveyed by Smart Business say search engine optimization isn’t part of their current marketing strategy. Search engine optimization has a rightful place in every company’s budget, yet few companies ‘get it,’ and they don’t allocate serious funds into the development of a program.

It all starts when a potential customer enters a search term into Google. Two types of search results are displayed: natural and pay-per-click.

Natural search, which are the results shown on the left side of any search page, are based on merit and validity to the keywords used. The results in the narrow column on the right are pay-per-click results.

When you optimize your site for natural search, it can take three months to see progress in your rankings. The better the optimization, the higher up your site will appear in relevant searches, increasing your chances for a sale.

Pay-per-click gets immediate results by displaying your ad when someone searches for a particular keyword that you choose, but you are charged every time someone clicks on your site. This is an advertisement and a temporary fix.

Why optimization is important

The name Google is so widely used that it’s the newest verb in the English language. Everyone knows of the search engine because it has a commanding market share (various online sources cite 60 to 70 percent on average), so the connection is easy to make: If your Web site ranks high on Google, that’s the best way to reach an audience that’s looking for your goods or services. SEO gets your name in front of consumers at a time they are looking to buy what you sell.

SEO creates compelling information on your site, makes it easy to find and spreads your name around the Internet as much as possible. In the process, your site will be placed ahead of your competition when keywords are searched related to your business.

“SEO is critical to the success of a business,” says David Culbertson, president, LightBulb Interactive. “Search engines are the most common way for people to find information, so you need to rank for words that matter to your business.”

Competition plays a role in the difficulty in ranking high, but a series of criteria installed by Google and implemented by SEO firms help make the ranking determination.

“The main concern businesses have with SEO is that they don’t understand the true contribution it has in their business,” says Adam Goldberg, chief innovation officer, ClearSaleing. “Since 80 percent of Internet users never make it past page one search results, it’s important to find a firm that is confident page one optimization is possible after all is said and done.”

The longer you wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to get your site ranked higher.

“A business should get started on SEO on day one,” says King Hill, president DigiKnow Inc. “SEO takes time to show progress but demand by competition decides ranking difficulty. Ultimately, SEO increases the buyer’s awareness by introducing your services or products right in the midst of the buying decision.”

What to look out for

Although understanding the intricate details of what makes search engine optimization work would require two Advil and a clear schedule, knowing the basics and what questions to ask will minimize the use of your mental reserves. There’s no accreditation program for SEO firms, but getting a brief education of the process will allow you to know your opportunities instead of becoming one.

First, there are different forms of SEO, none of which comes with a guarantee. There are two main types of search: local and global — and you’ll also hear the term “universal search,” which encompasses both, plus video. A business like a restaurant would probably be interested in a local search only, so would focus on keywords and phrases that include the city name.

One of the easiest ways to measure what keywords might help you rank high is Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics). It’s a free service provided by Google that allows you to test the current value of your Web site and gives you detailed reports on what keywords are being used to find your site.

But keywords are not the only measure of success.

“Savvy Web marketers must look for opportunities to spread their content beyond their own Web site,” Culbertson says. “Making a series of low-cost videos to boost profits is another option. Blendtec, a blender manufacturer, increased sales by 500 percent by posting videos on YouTube.”

Web site design also plays an intricate role in the process. Your site may have an impressive appearance, but spiders — software robots that “crawl” the Web indexing data — must be able to understand information on the page, or it will not be efficiently indexed, dropping your Web site’s ranking.

Mobile search is the newest type of optimization and sometimes it’s referred to as “third screen.” In the U.S., mobile marketing is largely used for local search, but foreign markets rely on mobile Web access heavily for all facets of search.

Getting the most return from your site requires a balance of compelling information, easy access and optimization that gets it to the top of the search engine rankings. Most professional firms will be able to handle all of these needs, but again, ask questions before signing anything.

Ask the SEO firm if it performs link building, which places a link to your site from other reputable sites. Also ask what techniques it uses to create incoming links to ensure they follow search engine guidelines.

Also, ask the company how it tests, measures and reports results. Think about what

you want to know, such as how many people visited a page and if they made a purchase, and make sure the firm can provide that data.

Once you find a company you are comfortable with, think long term.

“If you are thinking of hiring an outside company, you should definitely engage in it for a year,” says David Roth, director of search marketing, Yahoo. “SEO is a long, iterative process with delayed results; you’ll want to keep the agency around so they can maximize the benefit to your company and hold them accountable for their actions.”

Like anything else, SEO gets you what you pay for and that means hours of work and a decent chunk of your marketing budget. Since a feasible figure depends on your budget, factor at least a quarter of your marketing budget for SEO.

“The good news is, once SEO is put into place, the cost of attracting a new user is practically zero,” Roth says.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Healthy returns

Revenue is down, the budget has been hacked away and now you’re edging toward reducing employee health care coverage — or even eliminating it outright. Before taking action, take into account the short-term benefits and long-term effects of your options.

A knee-jerk reaction may be to shift the benefit burden to employees. But those who have been down that road, say there are ways to take a strategic approach to generate value from a shrunken budget and employee pool. The most successful organizations over the long-term will be the ones that cut costs now, while improving the health of their employee populations.

Utilize existing resources to find out how you can save money, starting with your health insurance provider.

“If your insurance provider builds plans on wellness and prevention, you could save money by initiating a wellness program to complement your current employee health insurance plans,” says William B. Caswell, senior vice president of operations for Kaiser Permanente, Southern California Region. “You don’t want to be asking all of the time how you got sick but, ‘How do I get better and stay better?’”

Awareness of the claims filed by your employees will allow you to determine the best health plan move that will work for their needs and devise a health promotion program that will be most appealing to them. While moving to a lower-cost plan may be a necessity, it is a temporary fix and should be complemented with an emphasis on health that will have a more lasting impact.

A 2009 Watson Wyatt report shows that 67 percent of employer respondents to an Annual National Business Group on Health survey say the top challenge to maintaining affordable benefits coverage is employees’ poor health habits. Only by managing these habits can you truly get your costs under control.

Work with your provider

Work with your health insurance provider to decide what the best options to your budget will be. Negotiating rates with insurers isn’t usually effective, as insurers aren’t offering massive discounts because of the economic downturn. The option you usually have is a different plan with reduced coverage.

One option is cost shifting to save the company money while increasing the cost to employees. But altering plans and shifting costs to employees isn’t solving the problem of high premiums. A Hewitt Associates LLC executives’ survey shows that participants found cost shifting didn’t bring out desired behavior changes in employees and that an emphasis on health at the workplace is needed.

Another money-saving health care option is risk sharing.

“You can switch to a plan that only pays when there is a medical event,” Caswell says. “But this is risky because an employee could get a costly ailment or go on maternity leave. You need to couple a doable plan with a wellness program. But when you implement these programs, don’t expect a dramatic, immediate change.”

A third option is a health savings account, which takes money out of an employee’s check pretax and the employer has the option of adding money to the account, as well. If the employee switches jobs, he or she will take this health savings plan to the new position and the employer will retract its contribution from the fund.

“The economy will improve, and the way you treated your employees during this downtime will make a difference in your future business,” says Christopher DeRosa, president and general manager, CIGNA HealthCare, Southern California. “You don’t want to drop their coverage or cut them way back at the worst time.”

While health promotion — or wellness — programs aren’t usually at the top of the list when contemplating short-term health insurance savings, a program will have positive results in the short term with the best outcomes in one to three years. Companies that effectively promote health see immediate savings in premiums of 10 to 13 percent with the potential of reducing future medical costs. The investment has a $3 to $6 payback on the dollar.

Your best bet to cut costs will be a two-prong approach. Change your health plan for instant budget relief and initiate a health promotion plan.

“You will see an 8 to 10 percent trend reduction in premium and 2 to 4 percent reduction in program costs when a wellness program is initiated,” DeRosa says.

Design your health awareness plan with consideration of the number of employees that will be participating. A smaller company of 50 employees or less shouldn’t invest more than $25 per employee initially, but should focus on raising awareness by providing educational material that emphasizes preventive care, proper nutrition and health-related Web sites.

A midsized company of 300 or more employees should invest about $90 per person. Providing educational tools, focusing on the population’s main areas of concern and taking a competitive, fun approach is effective. A large company with a willingness to invest about $240 per employee can have a comprehensive program using education, financial incentives, include spouses and offer perks like gym memberships.

Your insurance provider may have free online health risk assessment surveys. By surveying your employees you can determine ways to meet the company’s and employees’ financial needs. Ask questions about physical activity, stress management, tobacco use and general disease risk factors.

“People move and take action only when they feel they need to,” says Jim Elliott, vice president, mid/large sector sales, Southern California, Blue Shield of California. “Discuss the economic reason to alter health insurance plans and tell them what benefits a wellness plan can have on not only their health but their finances.”

Discussing what your insurance company provides to you at no cost or at reduced rates is a great first step. Many employers are unaware of fringe benefits included in their plans. If the insurance provider doesn’t offer what you need for free, it should be able to direct you to an organization or local hospital program that does.

The process

After you’ve determined a health awareness focus for your employee population, you can create a plan of action.

“If you offer more incentives to lead a healthy life, your employees will do it,” Caswell says. “Why does a football coach care if his team is fat and smokes? They won’t be winning any games, that’s for sure, and it’s the same with your staff.”

You also need to make an assessment of your workplace wellness environment. Identify strengths and areas that need improvement. Enforce no smoking on the campus; provide healthy choices in vending machines and the cafeteria.

“Foster an atmosphere of health, make your office a no-smoking campus,” Caswell says. “If employees have to migrate too far, they might start thinking about giving up smoking instead of taking the long walk.”

Provide health tips, programs, discounts to gyms and other information through multiple delivery sources. Some employees are more receptive to e-mails or newsletters — or they just need to hear the same message multiple times to get motivated into action.

“If you have 60 to 80 percent participation in a wellness program, you will see serious changes not only in employees’ day-to-day health but in health care costs,” Elliott says. “It will be worth all of your effort, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t start a wellness program sooner.”

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Healthy returns

Revenue is down, the budget has been hacked away and now you’re edging toward reducing employee health care coverage — or even eliminating it outright. Before taking action, take into account the short-term benefits and long-term effects of your options.

A knee-jerk reaction may be to shift the benefit burden to employees. But those who have been down that road, say there are ways to take a strategic approach to generate value from a shrunken budget and employee pool. The most successful organizations over the long-term will be the ones that cut costs now, while improving the health of their employee populations.

Utilize existing resources to find out how you can save money, starting with your health insurance provider.

“Wellness programs are on the rise, but they are also one of the first benefits to be cut when times are lean,” says Bethany Thayer, manager of worksite health promotion, Henry Ford Health System. “This is because the plans were ill-planned. Partner with your insurance provider to get tips and information on your employees’ most common claims.”

Awareness of the claims filed by your employees will allow you to determine the best health plan move that will work for their needs and devise a health promotion program that will be most appealing to them. While moving to a lower-cost plan may be a necessity, it is a temporary fix and should be complemented with an emphasis on health that will have a more lasting impact.

A 2009 Watson Wyatt report shows that 67 percent of employer respondents to an Annual National Business Group on Health survey say the top challenge to maintaining affordable benefits coverage is employees’ poor health habits. Only by managing these habits can you truly get your costs under control.

Work with your provider

Work with your health insurance provider to decide what the best options to your budget will be. Negotiating rates with insurers isn’t usually effective, as insurers aren’t offering massive discounts because of the economic downturn. The option you usually have is a different plan with reduced coverage.

One option is cost shifting to save the company money while increasing the cost to employees. But altering plans and shifting costs to employees isn’t solving the problem of high premiums. A Hewitt Associates LLC executives’ survey shows that participants found cost shifting didn’t bring out desired behavior changes in employees and that an emphasis on health at the workplace is needed.

Another money-saving health care option is risk sharing.

“Make sure you know what your savings expectations are,” says Cindy Bjorkquist, director of wellness and care management consulting, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “Discuss your expectations with your insurance provider and see how they can help you get there. Start with a health assessment survey for employees, which they can provide.”

A third option is a health savings account, which takes money out of an employee’s check pretax and the employer has the option of adding money to the account, as well. If the employee switches jobs, he or she will take this health savings plan to the new position and the employer will retract its contribution from the fund.

“A risk appraisal typically looks for five common chronic conditions,” Bjorkquist says. “Have noncompliant employees pay a higher health insurance rate. You can discuss with employees what plan you will switch to if there isn’t a health improvement in the population after a wellness program is presented. Give them the option.”

While health promotion — or wellness — programs aren’t usually at the top of the list when contemplating short-term health insurance savings, a program will have positive results in the short term with the best outcomes in one to three years. Companies that effectively promote health see immediate savings in premiums of 10 to 13 percent with the potential of reducing future medical costs. The investment has a $3 to $6 payback on the dollar.

Your best bet to cut costs will be a two-prong approach. Change your health plan for instant budget relief and initiate a health promotion plan.

“You can pass on premium surcharges to noncompliant employees, which takes the pressure off of you,” Bjorkquist says. “Many companies change to a plan with a less costly premium and try wellness initiatives. What they don’t know about is the options that are offered free online or with their health care provider. There needs to be an open line of communication with the insurance provider to get the most out of your benefits.”

Design your health awareness plan with consideration of the number of employees that will be participating. A smaller company of 50 employees or less shouldn’t invest more than $25 per employee initially, but should focus on raising awareness by providing educational material that emphasizes preventive care, proper nutrition and health-related Web sites.

A midsized company of 300 or more employees should invest about $90 per person. Providing educational tools, focusing on the population’s main areas of concern and taking a competitive, fun approach is effective. A large company with a willingness to invest about $240 per employee can have a comprehensive program that includes education, financial incentives, the inclusion of spouses and perks like gym memberships.

Your insurance provider may have free online health risk assessment surveys. By surveying your employees you can determine ways to meet the company’s and employees’ financial needs. Ask questions about physical activity, stress management, tobacco use and general disease risk factors.

“Build awareness of the health issue through employees’ health risk assessment,” Thayer says. “Then you need to keep building the culture of wellness by having healthy foods available for employees and participate in the program yourself.”

Discussing what your insurance company provides to you at no cost or at reduced rates is a great first step. Many employers are unaware of fringe benefits included in their plans. If the insurance provider doesn’t offer what you need for free, it should be able to direct you to an organization or local hospital program that does.

The process

After you’ve determined a health awareness focus for your employee population, you can create a plan of action.

“Get rid of junk vending machines,” Thayer says. “You can’t support a culture of change and have bad food around. It’s not difficult to swap sugary foods for fruit or something less detrimental to the efforts.”

You also need to make an assessment of your workplace wellness environment. Identify strengths and areas that need improvement. Enforce no smoking on the campus; provide healthy choices in vending machines and the cafeteria.

“If you’re asking your employees to do more and more because of your downsizing, you need to make sure they stay healthy,” Thayer says.

Provide health tips, programs, discounts to gyms and other information through multiple delivery sources. Some employees are more receptive to e-mails or newsletters — or they just need to hear the same message multiple times to get motivated into action.

“Quantify your outcomes,” Thayer says. “Have lunch-and-learn sessions, provide flu vaccines and have periodic health screenings performed. This will eliminate your future health care anxieties or at least reduce them.”

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Healthy returns

Revenue is down, the budget has been hacked away and now you’re edging toward reducing employee health care coverage — or even eliminating it outright. Before taking action, take into account the short-term benefits and long-term effects of your options.

A knee-jerk reaction may be to shift the benefit burden to employees. But those who have been down that road, say there are ways to take a strategic approach to generate value from a shrunken budget and employee pool. The most successful organizations over the long-term will be the ones that cut costs now, while improving the health of their employee populations.

Utilize existing resources to find out how you can save money, starting with your health insurance provider.

“You need to utilize internal resources,” says Leia Spoor, wellness manager at Baylor Health Care System. “Speak with your insurance provider to see if they have a partnership with a local hospital that offers free information or a fee covered by the insurer that can provide education on wellness.”

Awareness of the claims filed by your employees will allow you to determine the best health plan move that will work for their needs and devise a health promotion program that will be most appealing to them. While moving to a lower-cost plan may be a necessity, it is a temporary fix and should be complemented with an emphasis on health that will have a more lasting impact.

A 2009 Watson Wyatt report shows that 67 percent of employer respondents to an Annual National Business Group on Health survey say the top challenge to maintaining affordable benefits coverage is employees’ poor health habits. Only by managing these habits can you truly get your costs under control.

Work with your provider

Work with your health insurance provider to decide what the best options to your budget will be. Negotiating rates with insurers isn’t usually effective, as insurers aren’t offering massive discounts because of the economic downturn. The option you usually have is a different plan with reduced coverage.

One option is cost shifting to save the company money while increasing the cost to employees. But altering plans and shifting costs to employees isn’t solving the problem of high premiums. A Hewitt Associates LLC executives’ survey shows that participants found cost shifting didn’t bring out desired behavior changes in employees and that an emphasis on health at the workplace is needed.

Another money-saving health care option is risk sharing.

“Dallas is the fattest county in the state,” says David Toomey, president and general manager, CIGNA HealthCare of Texas. “Get with your employees and discuss how you can solve the problem of being so unhealthy. See how you can help them manage what health concern or stress is most important to them.”

A third option is a health savings account, which takes money out of an employee’s check pretax and the employer has the option of adding money to the account, as well. If the employee switches jobs, he or she will take this health savings plan to the new position and the employer will retract its contribution from the fund.

“You have to look at your health plan and wellness programs as a business opportunity,” Toomey says. “Someone will be paying a higher rate for health care with an unhealthy population, and you don’t want to be that person. If your employees and budget can’t afford it, you have to try to fix it. Tell employees the plan options and what you are up against.”

While health promotion — or wellness — programs aren’t usually at the top of the list when contemplating short-term health insurance savings, a program will have positive results in the short term with the best outcomes in one to three years. Companies that effectively promote health see immediate savings in premiums of 10 to 13 percent with the potential of reducing future medical costs. The investment has a $3 to $6 payback on the dollar.

Your best bet to cut costs will be a two-prong approach. Change your health plan for instant budget relief and initiate a health promotion plan.

“Wellness programs and the information gathered from health risk assessments don’t matter if you don’t use the information correctly,” Toomey says. “You can expect a 25 percent reduction in absenteeism if you have used the right recruitment tools in your program — so find out what your employees want to do first.”

Design your health awareness plan with consideration of the number of employees that will be participating. A smaller company of 50 employees or less shouldn’t invest more than $25 per employee initially, but should focus on raising awareness by providing educational material that emphasizes preventive care, proper nutrition and health-related Web sites.

A midsized company of 300 or more employees should invest about $90 per person. Providing educational tools, focusing on the population’s main areas of concern and taking a competitive, fun approach is effective. A large company with a willingness to invest about $240 per employee can have a comprehensive program that includes education, financial incentives, inclusion spouses and perks like gym memberships.

Your insurance provider may have free online health risk assessment surveys. By surveying your employees you can determine ways to meet the company’s and employees’ financial needs. Ask questions about physical activity, stress management, tobacco use and general disease risk factors.

“Try to make any health initiatives fun,” Spoor says. “Make employees accountable for their health and create a team environment. With 65 percent of the population being overweight or obese, there needs to be some reality of health risks put in front of people.”

Discussing what your insurance company provides to you at no cost or at reduced rates is a great first step. Many employers are unaware of fringe benefits included in their plans. If the insurance provider doesn’t offer what you need for free, it should be able to direct you to an organization or local hospital program that does.

The process

After you’ve determined a health awareness focus for your employee population, you can create a plan of action.

“There are free Web sites that you can provide to employees,” Spoor says. “When you keep putting information in front of people, they can’t help but pay attention. It may take a few times, but it will sink in.”

You also need to make an assessment of your workplace wellness environment. Identify strengths and areas that need improvement. Enforce no smoking on the campus; provide healthy choices in vending machines and the cafeteria.

“Provide information about disease prevention programs and give employees access to fruit and something other than sugary snacks during the workday,” Spoor says.

Provide health tips, programs, discounts to gyms and other information through multiple delivery sources. Some employees are more receptive to e-mails or newsletters — or they just need to hear the same message multiple times to get motivated into action.

“Promote preventive screenings,” Spoor says. “Look at the data that is available [for] free through your insurance provider regarding employee health claims. See where you need to focus programs and discuss your short-term plan changes with employees, letting them know they can save money by being healthier.”

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Wheels of change

The transportation industry has taken a hit in the past couple of years — first pummeled by fuel costs, now endangered because of lack of product demand. Even though the economic forecast may be grim, this is a prime time to evaluate your current network to find wasted money and inefficiencies that may be hurting your customer service.

Delivery delays and poor packing and routing methods can all cost your company money.

The good news is that there are software solutions out there that can help you fix your problems with a minimal investment and lower your logistics and transportation costs by 8 to 15 percent.

“The transportation logistics rules are all changing because of the economy,” says Arnold Bornstein, executive director of marketing and corporate communications for BDP International Inc., a global logistics and transportation solutions company. “Three-year strategic plans are all null and void and companies have to reconfigure budgets and readjust everything with their transportation logistics. If you aren’t operating your shipping through software, then you are at a great disadvantage. It will be much less efficient and more time-consuming to research rates and work off of spreadsheets than it would using software.”

Software programs are available to assist companies from the time an order is placed through the successful delivery of the order. Many executives view their transportation department as a cost center, but through successful management, it can be another way to earn money.

Why logistics software is important

The addition of software to your logistics department will optimize daily and long-term transportation plans and scheduling, carrier selection, route planning, inventory management, and small parcel shipping, which can reduce costs.

While a software investment may cost at least $10,000, improving your shipping processes will allow you to serve more customers and increase profits in the long run.

“Some companies will sell software with a perpetual license so you will always have access to the newest updates,” says Tim Andreae, senior vice president of global marketing for MCA Solutions Inc., a service planning and optimization software company. “There could be a monthly fee involved, but the benefits surpass the cost. Software gives you better visibility of the physical and nonphysical aspects of your business.”

A common transportation management issue has businesses keeping more inventory on hand than necessary. This typically happens when stock is manually cataloged instead of tracked with software. This means more of your money is sitting in warehouses instead of in your pocket.

“Part of the new normalcy when the economy heals will be the need for leadership to change economic credit to support normal business operation,” Bornstein says. “Part of daily business operation is having easy and fast access to your business information. Some businesses are delayed in this process because they can’t financially swing the initial investment costs.”

Human error is a big part of what can go wrong in logistics. Depending on the volume of orders you are receiving, this can add up. The use of software can eliminate these errors and make your inventory and tracking easier to manage. Software can also determine the best carrier for a particular type of shipment and contractual agreements.

“Efficiency means better customer service,” says Jamison Day, professor at the University of Houston, C.T. Bauer College of Business. “Software helps you move through the process better, faster and cheaper. If you don’t have the capabilities to purchase all of the necessary software but your company relies heavily on shipping, you should consider a third-party logistics firm.”

What you need to know

Before making a software purchase, you need to assess what areas of your process are in greatest need of assistance. While some companies package their software options, others individualize the programs for specific areas of interest, such as shipping and loading.

To figure out where you need help, you will need to perform an audit that tracks products from production to delivery.

Start by making a checklist. Are your shipments on time? Are your trucks traveling with full loads? What are your current fuel expenditures? Are you utilizing the best routes? What rates are you paying carriers? Are you paying your employees overtime? Are your orders accurate? If you don’t know how to obtain this information or you’re finding inconsistencies, software can probably help you reduce errors and delays.

“There are a fair amount of laws that must be obeyed in shipping, as well,” Day says. “Software will keep you abreast of what is necessary when sending out loads. You will, of course, have to keep upgrading your software, but this cost is much lower than fees and penalties that can be accrued when you don’t have paperwork in order. This delay will also make your customers unhappy.”

After you’ve determined the area you need the most help with, choose a software company you feel comfortable working with. Find a company that will be accessible when you need them. If you decide handling everything in-house is too expensive, find a third-party logistics firm that handles the details while you focus on your core competencies.

“Computers tend to find ways that reduce driving time and improve loading of shipments,” Day says. “The technology doesn’t replace the humans, it augments them, making everything more efficient. Depending on the industry, a third-party logistics firm will be a must. Calculate the rate to bring this service in-house compared to that of a logistics firm. Make sure that you find the right company to fit your needs. Don’t partner with the first guy holding a hammer looking for something to hammer even if it’s not the right tool. Look for a tool-independent firm.”

Today’s economic climate may be tough, but by looking for savings in every area of your business — including transportation — you can find money that can be better used elsewhere in your organization.

“Companies need to conduct an analysis for what their shipping prices are because the environment is ripe for renegotiating,” Bornstein says. “If you have in-house software, you can discover the best companies to use to meet your supply chain needs by finding their rates and history of on-time delivery. It’s always a good time to be efficient, but the softening of the economy demands no stone goes unturned. Technology will save budget dollars and maximize your employees’ use of time.”

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Wheels of change

The transportation industry has taken a hit in the past couple of years — first pummeled by fuel costs, now endangered because of lack of product demand. Even though the economic forecast may be grim, this is a prime time to evaluate your current network to find wasted money and inefficiencies that may be hurting your customer service.

Delivery delays and poor packing and routing methods can all cost your company money.

The good news is that there are software solutions out there that can help you fix your problems with a minimal investment and lower your logistics and transportation costs by 8 to 15 percent.

“You need to close the loop in shipping,” says Tom Sanderson, chairman, president and CEO of Transplace Inc., a third-party logistics and technology company. “Pick up products for your business on the way back from making a delivery so you maximize fuel use and man-hours. Software can tell you how to make the most of your routes.”

Software programs are available to assist companies from the time an order is placed through the successful delivery of the order. Many executives view their transportation department as a cost center, but through successful management, it can be another way to earn money.

Why logistics software is important

The addition of software to your logistics department will optimize daily and long-term transportation plans and scheduling, carrier selection, route planning, inventory management, and small parcel shipping, which can reduce costs.

While a software investment may cost at least $10,000, improving your shipping processes will allow you to serve more customers and increase profits in the long run.

“Transportation logistics isn’t nuts and bolts grunt work,” says Vernon E. Francis, associate professor and director of the supply chain management, engineering management and project management programs at the University of Dallas. “It is very significant and relevant in a business’s costs and reduction of costs that can be acquired. Technology is a must to be among the most sought-after suppliers.”

A common transportation management issue has businesses keeping more inventory on hand than necessary. This typically happens when stock is manually cataloged instead of tracked with software. This means more of your money is sitting in warehouses instead of in your pocket.

“This economy has been like getting bariatric surgery,” says James Moore, vice president of sales for Ryder System Inc. “If you lose 100 pounds all at once, your clothing isn’t going to fit anymore, and that’s what’s happened with many companies’ networks. They are now way larger than what they need to be and their one-time assets are now financially draining them. If efficiency is a problem with your transportation process, software will help eliminate errors and make the most of all efforts.”

Human error is a big part of what can go wrong in logistics. Depending on the volume of orders you are receiving, this can add up. The use of software can eliminate these errors and make your inventory and tracking easier to manage. Software can also determine the best carrier for a particular type of shipment and contractual agreements.

“Those who use software to maximize their transportation logistics potential say they experience anywhere from 1 to 20 percent increase in revenue from having more efficient processes,” Francis says. “Most people report a 1 to 5 percent improvement, which is pretty good.”

What you need to know

Before making a software purchase, you need to assess what areas of your process are in greatest need of assistance. While some companies package their software options, others individualize the programs for specific areas of interest, such as shipping and loading.

To figure out where you need help, you will need to perform an audit that tracks products from production to delivery.

Start by making a checklist. Are your shipments on time? Are your trucks traveling with full loads? What are your current fuel expenditures? Are you utilizing the best routes? What rates are you paying carriers? Are you paying your employees overtime? Are your orders accurate? If you don’t know how to obtain this information or you’re finding inconsistencies, software can probably help you reduce errors and delays.

“Having software as one of your tools is part of lean manufacturing techniques,” Francis says. “You can’t let the chips fall where they may, you must have a strategic plan and that includes software to improve efficiency. Transportation logistics boils down to handling, storing and moving stuff, but there is a definite method that makes everything work out the way it should. The industry has become savvier since the introduction of software, improving the cost of processing goods. Software is available and should be utilized.”

After you’ve determined the area you need the most help with, choose a software company you feel comfortable working with. Find a company that will be accessible when you need them. If you decide handling everything in-house is too expensive, find a third-party logistics firm that handles the details while you focus on your core competencies.

“Two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies use third-party logistics for some aspect of transportation, warehousing or inventory management,” Sanderson says. “Many businesses want to use their technology dollars elsewhere in the company so they end up having excess staffing and poor decision-making. Software or transportation management systems, which are used by third-party logistics firms, is on-demand technology that is provided as part of your service via the Internet. This Web software allows you to optimize carrier choices.”

Today’s economic climate may be tough, but by looking for savings in every area of your business — including transportation — you can find money that can be better used elsewhere in your organization.

“In this environment, it’s hard to change anything in a business that will cost money,” Sanderson says. “But it’s all about customer satisfaction. Invest in software to help with the process if you haven’t already or consider a third-party logistics firm that will supply you with the right software. You must make sure your loads are moving by the right method because they all have vastly different costs. Air, truck and rail all take different amounts of time and have different prices.

“Understanding customer expectations is essential in this process or else they’ll find someone who does understand them. If they want their products now, you have to find a carrier that can get it there now. It doesn’t make much sense to ignore a capability such as software that will help your business and make customers happy.”