National (1572)

Subtle adjustments to the claim adjudication process have led to managed care organizations (MCOs) being asked to start collecting expanded data on new injuries.

“An employer’s MCO plays a key role in initiating claims,” says Lance Watkins, AVP, Client Services, CompManagement Health Systems. All injury reports are routed through MCOs to ensure that the required data is in place before a claim is reviewed by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) for allowance.

Smart Business spoke with Watkins to better understand how MCOs will operate under the new process.

What is changing in the data collection process for MCOs?

Previously, standard incident reports included only the basics: the employee’s name, address, birth date, employer information and injury description. Additional details, such as the injured employee’s marital status and normal work hours, would eventually be pursued, perhaps by BWC after the allowance was determined.

MCOs are now being asked to gather more data before the claim is submitted to BWC. While this may often require a phone call to the employer, having more claim details in BWC’s hands before they make an allowance decision is a good thing.

What new information is required?

Among the new information MCOs are asked to collect is the employer’s certification or rejection of the claim. This question may be posed before a thorough investigation has been conducted. It may be appropriate to withhold this decision until better information is available. The claim can still be submitted to BWC for adjudication. However, there may be cases where the incident and injury are not in dispute, and an early certification may accelerate treatment for the injured employee.

How are additional allowances being treated?

Another area where BWC is asking MCOs to play a larger role is in the consideration of additional medical conditions on a claim.

Usually, when a treating physician seeks to expand the allowances and treat new conditions, it is an indication that the claim may be growing in complexity and cost. When the request for new conditions is submitted through the MCO with a treatment request, the MCO is to provide a recommendation on the existence of the condition. It is an awkward position to be in because the question of causality — whether or not the accident caused the condition — is what BWC will ultimately use to determine if the condition should be allowed on the claim.

One of the roles of the MCO is to reconcile the treatments to the medical conditions and move the claim toward resolution. MCOs study medical documentation daily and typically have faster access to sound diagnostics reflecting the condition of the injured employee.

What do these changes seek to accomplish?

Ultimately, the goal is to help injured employees return to the workplace as quickly and safely as possible. The most powerful cost driver in workers’ compensation claims is lost time, and the speed and clarity of information is a vital part of the return-to-work process.

BWC leans heavily on MCOs to resolve claims from the medical side and evaluates each MCO on their effectiveness in helping injured employees get back to work. BWC provides quarterly evaluation data on MCOs, called Measurement of Disability Scores (MoD), which reflect the MCO’s return-to-work performance compared to established benchmarks. With the MCOs and their client employers having a vested interest in the return-to-work scores, it is appropriate that MCOs be empowered to help accelerate the process and establish the informational framework for resolving claims.

Lance Watkins, AVP Client Services, CompManagement Health Systems, can be reached at (614) 376-5524 or watkinsl@chsmco.com.

Insights Workers’ Compensation is brought to you by CompManagement Health Systems

Gary Schottenstein learned from his father, Irving Schottenstein, to treat your customer right and fairly. And after more than 35 years in the real estate business, he still holds true to that — and tries to treat everyone that way, from customers to employees.

In fact, the chairman and CEO of Schottenstein Real Estate Group keeps a voicemail to remind him, and because it makes him feel good.

Bruce Heine was trying to buy one of the company’s condominiums for himself and his wife. The two had a lot of health problems.

Schottenstein says Heine couldn’t qualify for a mortgage. So, even though he didn’t know him very well, he told him to go ahead and move in, and pay what he could until he could buy it.

He got this call in August 2012:

I very sadly wanted to let you know that my wife died Friday night after six hours of open-heart surgery. I just want you to know that you allowing us to get into that beautiful place meant everything to her. She was the happiest I’ve seen her in years.

She saw me through five surgeries and some business setbacks, and she stuck with me with five IVs and I almost lost my leg. And it just — everything, she just willed me through it. And you making this, allowing this, to happen is immense.

I don’t — I know you’ve done hundreds of thousands of transactions, but you will never do a transaction where you have anyone more appreciative and grateful than myself and my wife.

Heine’s wife spent 10 days in the condo, and Heine himself died just over a year later in September 2013.

Schottenstein is very proud of the experience, but makes no brags about it: “I am not trying to toot my own horn. You’ve just got to feel for other people.”

Here’s how Schottenstein Real Estate, one of the largest developers and builders in the Midwest, focuses on customer satisfaction and team building.

A customer-centric culture

Schottenstein Real Estate strives to be open and forthright with customers. Management tries to get feedback from residents, so it throws different events and has staff mingle with residents.

“We’re a company that, if you want an appointment with the vice president, they’ll come to your home or business,” Schottenstein says. “We’re not some out-of-state company with ABC in the name that no one can figure out who they are.

“I think we were the first developer to implement a total satisfaction guarantee warranty for any resident.”

Schottenstein Real Estate’s first core value is to: “Build honest, open relationships with residents, customers, contractors, related parties and the public, so that our promises and integrity are unquestioned and reaffirmed to all.”

By striving to reinforce the customer’s trust and their decision to contract with Schottenstein Real Estate for one of the most important parts of their life — where they live, you build long-term relationships.

“When someone does business with you, they have confidence in you, and you want to try to, obviously, earn their confidence and trust ongoing in the future,” Schottenstein says.

Building the right team

Real estate, like many industries today, can be challenging, from locating and acquiring land to getting entitlement approvals. However, the right team is essential to success.

“We’ve been able to attract a very good team of associates, including vice presidents in charge of different divisions, and we’ve been able to maintain, for many years, great sub-contractors and suppliers and vendors, many of which have been doing business with us for almost 40 years,” Schottenstein says.

Even with the downturn in real estate over the past four to six years, Schottenstein Real Estate has still been able to grow and start a number of new projects, which is a testament to its employees.

Finding the right people to hire is a very important factor in any company, Schottenstein says. You need to spend a lot of time interviewing and ensuring someone is the right fit.

“You have to be very definite on the job description and what you expect out of someone, and you have to ask a lot of questions and make sure that they can meet those objectives,” he says.

Schottenstein Real Estate has found that a mix of internal promotions and recruiting talented people from competitors is a successful combination.

Once the employee has been hired, Schottenstein says, you should try to treat him or her as well and fairly and honestly as you can. By helping the employee grow and meet personal goals for success in their job, employees will want to stay with the organization for years.

You also need self-starters and self-motivators, who enjoy doing their work. They aren’t in it just for the money.

“You want people who enjoy getting up every day, going to work, that don’t clock-watch,” he says. “And, to me, no matter what position you’re in, you have to have good communication skills.

“Even people who are on the Internet and computer all day, I want them to be able to communicate with their co-workers and certainly with the public, the customers, anybody else. You have to be able to communicate and also, you have to realize that you’re part of the team,” Schottenstein says.

“Generally speaking, you have to really be sure that they like the industry that they’re in. You don’t want people just holding a place until retirement or just doing it for the money.”

Working smarter

Teamwork is very important in any company. Employees need to be able to understand how they fit in with their job duties as part of the whole organization.

One way to get associates to buy into the company’s mission and vision, Schottenstein says, is giving them freedom with their schedule, including the ability to take personal time off to participate in family and non-work events.

“We like to have them schedule their own time and meetings and not punch the clock. We don’t have a clock to be punched here,” he says.

The hours aren’t as important as the efficiency and performance.

“We don’t necessarily require someone to work a lot of long hours and overtime hours,” Schottenstein says. “We would rather have you work smarter and better; quality of time is more important than quantity of time on the job.”

So, how can you measure someone’s performance without just looking at the hours they put in?

If someone is in leasing or sales, Schottenstein says it’s pretty apparent by how much they are selling. Otherwise, working smarter means being focused, and not wasting time.

“When you’re at work, you have to be able to put your personal life behind you somewhat — you have to be able to focus,” he says, “and keep yourself aligned with what the company wants you to do.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Build honest, open relationships, so your integrity is unquestioned.
  • Hire people who have passion beyond the paycheck.
  • Encourage staff to work smarter, not longer.

 

The Schottenstein File:

Name: Gary Schottenstein

Title: Chairman and CEO

Company: Schottenstein Real Estate Group

Born: Columbus

Education: Bachelor of science in business administration with a concentration in accounting from The Ohio State University.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? My first job was really working construction and maintenance for apartment communities, and what I learned was to appreciate the hard work done by all the contractors and laborers. When you’re out there you can see how hard people work — and primarily working with their hands.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received? The best business advice I ever received was from my father, Irving Schottenstein. He said to always care about your customers and try to treat them fairly and honestly.

Who do you admire in business? I admire people who are able to be successful in business, but also successful in their family life and have time to give back to the community, the city and to charitable organizations.

What does business success mean to you? It’s not just one word or something. I would say: No. 1, enjoying your work and the people that you work with; No. 2, would be accomplishing project goals, including building households which can appeal to and satisfy the residents; and No. 3 would be to develop communities which enhance the overall city and state where it’s located.

 

Learn more about Schottenstein Real Estate Group at:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/LiveSREG
Twitter: @SRE_Group


How to Reach: Schottenstein Real Estate Group, (614) 418-8900 or www.schottensteinrealestate.com

We ♥ (heart) logistics.

The award-winning UPS ad campaign certainly strikes home for Columbus. The city is naturally attractive as a distribution and logistics hub for its geographic access to 46 percent of the U.S. population within a 10-hour drive, as well as strong supply chain talent and value.

In fact, the logistics industry employs 9 percent of Central Ohio’s workforce.

But just like with manufacturing, distribution and logistics jobs may not be the first thought of those entering the workforce, says Kenny McDonald, CEO of Columbus 2020.

“It’s still probably a misunderstood term and a misunderstood industry,” he says.

Jeff Zimmerman, director of the Columbus Region Logistics Council, says logistics is a term that has been around forever.

“But no one has ever really known what logistics was until UPS turned it into a little ad campaign,” he says. “And we heart logistics suddenly makes logistics a little bit chic, fashionable or at least visible.”

Although Columbus’ geography and a clustering effect allow the region to win some things, McDonald says there’s been an intentional effort on top of that by business, government and education.

“The industry itself — end users, shippers, as well as 3PLs [third-party logistics] and a variety of other service providers — has come together and really worked on the workforce,” he says.

Advocating on behalf of the industry

One focus of the Columbus Region Logistics Council is developing a skilled workforce with 21st century work skills as a competitive advantage.

“Business doesn’t have the opportunity to slow down to train an employee,” Zimmerman says. “They’ve got to come in with a prerequisite skill.”

The council advocates to both students and student’s parents at all levels — secondary, post-secondary and vocational/technical — so they are aware of not only jobs but also career opportunities in the logistics industry at-large, Zimmerman says.

“That’s been one of the things that the logistics council has done really successfully for our region: We’ve been good cheerleaders, good advocates and good stewards on behalf of the success and the ongoing growth of the industry,” he says.

By putting a focus on workforce, the industry has created better communication to the educational system, which has responded through curriculum and programs that allow students to matriculate into the workforce better equipped, better prepared and more successful.

Both The Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College have logistics degrees, and OSU has a master in business logistics engineering. The MLBE program focuses on supply chain optimization and technology, allowing students the rare opportunity for hands-on experience running a transportation management system.

“The industry is increasingly more sophisticated, and as a result of that we’ve got to work closely with education to make sure that we can make all of those pathways visible and keep the pipeline of talent flowing through the system into industries successfully,” Zimmerman says.


Being proactive for future growth

The traditional methods businesses use to seek logistics talent still work today, Zimmerman says, but they need to be a little more proactive with recruiting.

“Are they sponsors of programs, and do they have visibility?” he says “Are they actively engaged in the internship process to bring talent into their environment to create awareness — to educate and bring that student through a successful experience so that they can go out and be a mouthpiece for not only the business, but for the industry at-large?”

Katy Keane, an adjunct logistics professor at OSU and president of Koncatenate, a supply chain consulting practice, sees the industry changing.

“There’s a lot of automation that’s going on right now in terms of distribution centers,” she says. “Companies are spending millions of dollars in high-tech automation for automated sorting and retrieval systems or things like that.”

Employees no longer are just picking and packing boxes, and it takes a more tech-savvy labor force to handle high-tech equipment.

Keane also foresees a potential truck driver shortage, especially with the new hours of service rules and safety regulations that are weeding out drivers.

“We’re working on training those logistician leaders of the future with some excellent programs, incredible faculty and all of that, but again, my concern is the ones who actually have to execute the work,” she says. “We need to do a better job in educating the middle market, the middle labor pool.”

“We have worked and continue to work,” Zimmerman says. “As the pace quickens and growth increases, we’re going to need more people. And so we’ve got to be able to bring more people into the system, attracted to opportunities in the industry and then prepared with the right levels of training.”

 

Learn more about logistics with a related story: E-commerce — A sea change in retail

 

How to reach: Columbus 2020, (614) 225-6063 or www.columbusregion.com; Columbus Region Logistics Council, (614) 225-6086 or www.columbus.org/about/councils/columbus-region-logistics-council; The Ohio State University, Fisher College of Business, Department of Marketing & Logistics, (614) 292-8808 or www.fisher.osu.edu/departments/marketing-and-logistics.

Companies that have health insurance plans with low deductibles can save money by increasing the deductible, and then use some of the savings to ensure employees aren’t harmed by the change.

“If you go from a fairly rich deductible of $250 to $2,500, the insurance carrier will provide you discounts of 25 to 35 percent in premium reductions,” says Dan Wilke, Vice President of Underwriting and Statistical Analysis at Benefitdecisions, Inc.

“But if you tell employees their plan changed from a $250 to a $2,500 deductible, that’s a PR nightmare. Instead, you can create a health reimbursement account (HRA) or health savings account (HSA) to reimburse them under that deductible,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Wilke about the advantages and differences with HRA and HSA plans.

How does the reimbursement strategy work?

In essence, you make the employee whole all the way back to their original deductible liability. If their deductible was $250, then you’ll reimburse employees for any deductible incurred after the first $250. This works because in 90 percent of the cases we’ve done, the amount of premium savings — the 25 to 35 percent reduction the insurance carrier gives — is more than enough to cover the claims reimbursement the company has promised employees.

Doesn’t that involve some risk for the employer?

Yes, but our studies show that 53 percent of individuals incur $0 to $100 of claims on an annual basis. Even when you increase the amount to $250, it’s 63 percent of employees on the medical plan. So the company will have minimal reimbursement on 63 percent of employees. We haven’t had a situation where reimbursements have been more than the premium savings. It can happen; but our findings are that 10 to 20 percent of employees incur 80 percent of the claims.
 
The vast majority of employees don’t incur much in claim dollars. Employers should accrue an average of what they expect to reimburse, and that will add up to more than what is paid out. Over time, they’ll save money while giving employees the same coverage.

What are the differences between HRAs and HSAs? Which is better for employers? 

The HRA is a promise to pay. If an employee has claims, the company will give the employee money that has been set aside. Under an HSA, the company pays money into the account regardless of whether the employee ever goes to the doctor. If you raise the deductible to $2,500 and put $1,500 into an HSA, the company has incurred a fixed expense of $1,500. In essence, employees earn a $1,500 bonus that goes into a health retirement account they can take with them when they leave.

If you’re putting the premium 
savings into HSAs, you’re not really seeing any cost savings. You’re not pulling any costs out of the medical plan. Employees prefer HSAs because that’s money the employer is putting into a personal account. There also are tax advantages to the employee regarding any contributions made on an individual basis.

With an HRA, companies can cover the employee exposure from changing to a low-deductible to a high-deductible plan without giving up as much of the savings. Depending on your plan design, you can also issue debit cards to employees so that when they go to the pharmacy or doctor’s office they can have expenses paid upfront and they don’t have to pay up front out of pocket expenses.

Employees like that 
because the first thing they’re concerned about when switching to a higher deductible is having to pay a $2,500 bill and waiting to be reimbursed. This strategy is likely to continue to provide savings because you’re compounding premium increases on a lower amount. If rates go up 10 percent next year, a plan costing $500 with the $250 deductible would increase by $50, while the plan costing $375 with a $2,500 deductible costs $37.50 more. 
 
When employers see the compounding effect on three to five years of increases, they realize that it’s a way to curtail the trend seen over the last 10 years.
 
Dan Wilke is Vice President of Underwriting and Statistical Analysis at Benefitdecisions, Inc. Reach him at (312) 376-0437 or dwilke@benefitdecisions.com
 
Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by Benefitdecisions, Inc.
Businesses are familiar with the notion that written employment contracts can be a source of rights and liabilities in the event of a split with an executive employee.

However, businesses 
are often not as familiar with other potential sources of employment liability in those situations, including the Wage Payment and Collections Act, sometimes called the Wage Payment Act.

Smart Business spoke with John Haarlow Jr., an attorney at Novack and Macey LLPto discuss the relationship between this statute and executive compensation.

What is the act and why is it important?

Generally speaking, the Wage Payment Act requires Illinois employers to pay the final compensation of separated employees. Employers need to be conscious of the act because it applies to all employees, from hourly wage earners to top executives. It also provides a range of powerful remedies for separated employees, including attorneys’ fees and potential personal liability. 

What are the elements of a claim?

To prevail on a Wage Payment Act claim, a separated employee must demonstrate that he or she has been denied final compensation in violation of an ‘agreement’ with an employer. Under the act, an agreement is broader and less formal than a traditional contract. For example, an agreement can arise from the pattern or practice between the employee and employer, such as payment of a fixed amount at regular intervals, or from a conversation between an employee and employer.

Claims 
under the act are brought, and sometimes won, solely based on an executive employee’s testimony that the employer promised a payment it later refused to make.

What types of compensation may an employee seek under the act?

Final compensation is essentially any payment due and owing pursuant to an agreement between the employee and employer, including salary, wages, commissions, bonuses, vacation pay, stock options, severance pay and pension contributions. In the event of mid-year separation, some of these payments must be made pro rata.

Calculating these payments 
can be complicated and expensive when dealing with executive separations that include substantial commissions, bonuses or golden parachute packages that vest at various times.

When is an employee entitled to receive a bonus under the act?

Whether executive employees are entitled to a bonus upon separation under the act has been heavily litigated. Generally, if an executive can show that the employer made an unequivocal promise to pay a bonus and that the conditions for payment have been met, a bonus may be awarded under the act. Such an award is still possible even though a bonus is within the employer’s discretion and is typically awarded at year’s end.

When may a separated employee recover attorneys’ fees?

A recent amendment to the act provides that employers are liable for the attorneys’ fees of any employee that brings a successful claim under the act. The relatively easy access to attorneys’ fees provides departing executives a key bargaining chip in connection with their claims and makes claims for smaller amounts feasible to bring.

Under what conditions is personal liability possible?

One of the most striking features of the act is that an employer’s officer or agent can be held personally liable for the departing employee’s damages and attorneys’ fees. For personal liability to attach, an officer must have knowledge of the compensation arrangement between the departing executive and the employer and knowingly permit the employer to violate the act. This can provide executives tremendous leverage by putting individual officers at personal risk in connection with a Wage Payment Act claim.

How can a business protect itself?

Every business is different, so there is no silver bullet to protecting against Wage Payment Act liability. However, broadly speaking, businesses should make clear what comprises an executive’s compensation package and when and how it will be paid. That way, there are less likely to be disputes about payment upon separation.
 
John Haarlow Jr. is an attorney with Novack and Macey LLP. Reach him at (312) 419-6900 or jhaarlow@novackmacey.com
 
Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Novack and Macey LLP 
Business operations are subject to a number of internal and external risks, as are ownership interests in businesses. How organizations and their owners address these risks can have a significant impact on the value of businesses and interests therein. 

An enterprise risk management (ERM) process involves identifying risks relative to an organization’s objectives, assessing them for likelihood and impact, developing a response strategy and monitoring progress. A well-defined ERM process framework can protect and create value for organizations and their owners. 

Smart Business spoke with John T. Alfonsi, managing director at Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC, about how ERM precesses can mitigate risk and increase a company’s value.

Where is risk addressed in a business valuation?

The most common method of valuing a business is the ‘income approach.’ It requires a valuation analyst to project a business’s future cash flows, then calculate the present value of the sum of these cash flows by employing an appropriate discount rate. The valuation analyst must address risk in two primary areas: projected future cash flows and the discount rate. 

Effective ERM 
processes can help businesses increase value by affecting the estimates for these quantities.

How does risk impact projected cash flow?

There exists a risk that an organization will not achieve its projected figures. As such, the process by which management projects future cash flows can impact a valuation analyst’s assessment of the business. A key risk in the process is information integrity, the quality of information generated through monitoring and data assimilation. 

Information integrity allows management to make well-informed decisions and should provide a valuation analyst with greater confidence in a business’s projections. Valuation analysts can analyze information integrity by examining historical projections and assessing elements of the internal control environment.

A valuation analyst also should examine the variance between historical projections and a business’s actual performance. If a strong correlation exists, a valuation analyst can be highly confident in current projections, if the process employed by the organization remains constant. If not, the analyst must examine the variance between the past projections and actual performance to discern whether bias existed in past estimates and current projections.

What about risks in the discount rate? 

The discount rate is the yield necessary to attract capital to a particular investment, given the risks associated with that investment. A project with relatively high risk will require a relatively high yield to compensate an investor for bearing these risks.

In determining the discount rate, there are two sources of risk that need to be quantified: systematic and unsystematic. Systematic risk is the risk one must bear for taking on a risky investment in the market. However, systematic risk is estimated by calculating the return to public equities due to availability of data.

The 
ERM process has little impact on systematic risks unless the business’s performance is heavily tied to market performance. Unsystematic risk is sometimes broken down into two components, industry risk and company-specific risk. Industry risk reflects the risks identified with the industry in which a business operates.

Company-specific 
risks encompass all other risks, including size, depth of management, geography of operations, customer and/or vendor concentration, competition and financial health.

How can ERM processes mitigate company-specific risks and increase value?

An ERM process should quickly gather and assimilate high-quality information for use in an organization’s decision-making process, allowing the organization to rapidly assess the impact and likelihood of risks associated with changes in its internal and external environments. Early assessment and mitigation can help preserve value and capitalize on risky events when competitors do not react as swiftly to environmental changes.
 
John T. Alfonsi is the Managing Director for Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC. Reach him at (866) 717-1607 or jta@cendsel.com
 
Insights Accounting is brought to you by Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC 

Charles “Chuck” Sanders, CEO and founder of Urban Lending Solutions, isn’t afraid to take chances when he sees an opportunity.

After a brief career in the National Football League, Sanders needed a job and started doing marketing for Pittsburgh real estate entrepreneur Robert Murphy Jr.’s golf course and semi-pro basketball team.

One day Sanders asked Murphy, “How do you get the money to buy basketball teams and golf courses?”

“I’m in the mortgage business,” Murphy replied.

“And I said, ‘That’s the business I want to get into,’” Sanders says.

So, he learned the real estate business working in operations and sales at Murphy’s company, ValuAmerica, becoming a nationally recognized vendor, recruiter and provider of real estate information, technology, products and services.

In 2000, he took everything he had learned from working for Murphy and started his own mortgage services company.

His confidence and make-it-work attitude have helped him succeed. For example, a few years in, Sanders found out through his connections that a particular bank in Georgia needed title and abstract work. So, he packed up his car and went down there, hitting courthouse after courthouse, hiring people.

“I came back to the bank and said, ‘Hey, look. I can provide property reports all throughout Georgia. I’ve got an abstractor in every county.’ And they gave me an opportunity, and it was our first big deal that launched us,” Sanders says.

Today, Urban Lending is a national company that generated $220 million in revenue in 2013 and employs about 2,400 permanent and temporary employees.

It’s about more than money for Sanders though, who says he got the bug to be an entrepreneur and just went for it.

“I think it’s the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just your circumstances. I didn’t know what a mortgage was when I was in high school. I mean you know what a mortgage is, but I just needed a job and one thing lead to another. If you slow down every day and look around, you might see an opportunity.”  

And it was that same ability to see opportunities that helped him take his company to the next level in the mid-2000s.

 

An educated guess for a new direction

At that time, nearly everyone was doing well with mortgage originations in the booming housing market. But large title companies started to do their own processing work. With great relationships with banks, this fierce competition from the title companies put the squeeze on middle companies like Urban Lending, which specialized in mortgage origination, Sanders says.

“It really forced us to say, ‘Hey, where are we going to go next for this company to survive?’” he says. “We had to change directions and go somewhere where they weren’t fishing.”

Sanders and his management team watched the market and took an educated guess that the housing portion was going to crash and there was going to be a lot of defaults. That lead Urban Lending to became one of the first companies to concentrate on loan modifications for banks.

“Nowadays, everybody hears about loan modifications,” Sanders says. “You hear it all the time — commercials, TV, people talk about it. But back in 2005/2006, it wasn’t a big product or a big service.”

You can’t be scared to change, to go where the business is, he says.

“Sometimes you’re making widgets, you’re making widgets, you’re making widgets — and you go, ‘You know what, we’re not winning here. So, we’d better figure out what to do with the tools we have,’” Sanders says.

“Sometimes you’ve got to take that bold move, and say, ‘You know what? While everybody is playing over here, we’re going to go play over there and be the best at that.’”



Staying flexible for the right people

With a new direction, it was time to invest in the right intellectual capital. Sanders went out and found some of the best people.

“I learned to just really find some experts,” he says, “and let them come in and work on solutions with the banks — to whiteboard things, tailor-making solutions for our customers.”

One of those hires was Jim Smith, a known expert in loan modifications. There was one slight hiccup; Smith’s deal-breaker was that he wouldn’t move from Colorado.

Sanders says his business is so centered on people, he agreed to be flexible.

An office focused on loan modifications was opened in Bloomfield, Colo., which grew rapidly, drawing from the great talent base in the area. Today, with two Colorado offices, Urban Lending employees more people in The Centennial State than in the original Pittsburgh office, which continues to focus on mortgage originations.

Having multiple offices in different states might seem like a challenge, Sanders says, because you’d like to be the team leader every day, going in and keeping the troops charged up. But the key to multiple locations is putting great people in charge.

“I think in this day and age, with technology, and the way people move around and the great communication they have, it’s not the barrier it was years ago — even five years ago,” he says.

In fact, Sanders is looking to expand further with Urban Lending by setting up a brick-and-mortar presence on the West Coast, where the company is starting to work with some major banks and lenders.


Managing your workforce based on customer needs

Balancing changing customer needs can be challenging — and exhilarating, which keeps the business fresh, Sanders says, but one of the biggest parts to being profitable is correctly managing your workforce.

For Urban Lending, there are certain outside forces at play, like how much banks are outsourcing mortgage work, and the market’s balance between mortgage origination and default.

“In a perfect world, you’d love to have products and services on both sides that are equally good, but it’s always a balancing act to kind of see what’s coming and be heavy on one side, or be known to be an expert and market leader on the default side or origination side,” he says.

Right now, Urban Lending is about 60 percent focused on the default and loan modification side. In order to stay fluid, however, the company uses temporary employees for certain customer projects, allowing it to scale up and down as needed — running the numbers to see when it makes sense.

Finding the right mix of permanent and temporary employees comes down to knowing your industry, Sanders says.

“Don’t be afraid to use temp services,” he says. “There are a lot of specialty temp services out here. We work with some that are specialized in the mortgage industry.

“It keeps us flexible. We can get teams and attack certain projects.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Don’t be afraid to take a new business direction when necessary.
  • Trust yourself to invest in the right intellectual capital.
  • Being profitable means correctly managing your workforce.

 

The Sanders File:

Name: Charles “Chuck” Sanders
Title: CEO and founder
Company: Urban Lending Solutions

Born: Pittsburgh

Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? Throughout high school, I worked for my father. He had a trucking company, Sanders Trucking, in Pittsburgh. That’s where I got my entrepreneurial spirit. I watched my dad be that guy in the community who provided the jobs. He was a giant of a man to me. I always wanted to be like my dad.

What is the best business advice you ever received? You’ve got to feel special about yourself. One time, Mr. Murphy [my mentor] told me, ‘You know, only 5 percent of the people in the world really get it.’ And he said, ‘Chuck, you’re one of those 5 percent.’ That really changed my whole life. Not to sound cocky or anything, but it made me confident to go out there and just go for it.
You have to have confidence in yourself. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to be the smartest, or the slickest or the most inventive, but you’ve just got to have an overriding confidence in yourself that you’re going to make it happen.

You played in the NFL for three years — two years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and one year with the San Diego Chargers. Do you use anything you learned playing professional football in your corporate career now? Absolutely. Football teaches you teamwork. It teaches you how to be around successful people and be articulate. I would go to all the meet-and-greets and be around the owners and all those things.

 

Learn more about Urban Lending Solutions at:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/Urban.Lending.Solutions
Twitter: @UrbanLending

 

How to reach: Urban Lending Solutions, (412) 325-7046 or www.urban-ls.com.

Year-end audits can be headaches for companies, as management takes time from busy schedules to gather information required by auditors. But a little preparation can make for a much smoother audit process.

“The first quarter is as busy for management as it is for us,” says Kami Refa, a partner at Moss Adams LLP. “But if the right control processes are in place throughout the year, the preparation for year-end audits become relatively easier, since the majority of the auditor’s requests should already be prepared as part of the company’s annual closing process.”

Smart Business spoke with Refa about year-end audits and steps you can take to prepare.

What preparations often get overlooked?

Getting big-ticket items out of the way ahead of time makes the actual audit fieldwork go smoother.  
 
That includes adopting new accounting pronouncements or changing over to the new Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission framework. Goodwill impairment analysis, which management is required to perform at least annually, is another example I frequently mention to clients.

This analysis can be done 
before the end of the year — there’s no need to wait for final numbers. Another area management and auditors can tackle prior to year-end revolves around onetime items, such as acquisitions.
  
Accounting for a significant acquisition can be a complex and time-consuming area. I encourage my clients to prepare the acquisition-related work papers as soon as the transaction closes and have us audit them right away. This can usually get done during non-busy times for both management and the auditors.
 
Should auditors be meeting regularly with management?

One approach is to have a continuous audit, which works well with public companies due to their quarterly review requirements. For private entities, auditors and management should meet regularly so the auditors can be brought up to speed as to the company’s operations, and management can learn of any new accounting or tax literature that may impact the company’s financials.

This 
will avoid surprises at audit time. In addition to ongoing regular meetings, management and the auditors should hold planning meetings when there are significant events, such as an acquisition. U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles requires that the assets purchased and liabilities assumed during an acquisition be recorded at fair value at the time of the transaction.

For software-as-
a-service companies, which tend to have large deferred revenue balances, the fair value of deferred revenue tends to be quite lower than the book value. Management needs to be aware of that fact when forecasting revenues and setting covenants. Management often relies on the amortization of the ‘book value’ deferred revenue when forecasting or setting covenants, which is wrong and can have costly consequences.

A lot of companies have debt and related debt covenants. If they’re close to violating those covenants and have set them without taking into account the impact of the fair value adjustments noted earlier, they could end up needing to reset the covenants or risk violating them. Bottom line is that if the auditors and management have discussions on a continuous basis, management has time to get a waiver or have the covenants reset.

What are the consequences of audits not being completed on time? 

Public companies have regulatory deadlines, and many private companies need to meet deadlines set by banks or investors. Failing to meet these deadlines could have dire consequences, such as delisting or impact on stock value for public companies, and lack of access to funds for private companies. If good preventive and detective controls are in place, it shouldn’t take a long time to prepare for an audit.

For example, account 
reconciliations should be done monthly, with one person preparing them and another reviewing them. If this is done, part of the year-end audit package is already complete. Part of the internal review for the audit should also be ensuring that documents are tied to the general ledger. A lot of this goes back to putting the right internal controls in place — not because of the year-end audit but because it’s good practice and helps both operationally and financially.
 
Kami Refa is a Partner with Moss Adams. Reach him at (949) 623-4161 or Kami.Refa@mossadams.com
 
Insights Accounting is brought to you by Moss Adams LLP

Boris Weinstein, 82, is passionate about litter prevention. It’s been like a second career for him since his retirement, and he easily spends 2,000 hours a year on his anti-litter work. And like many leaders, business or otherwise, he’s been able to use his passion to inspire and motivate others.

Weinstein first dabbled in litter cleanup as a junior commando in World War II, gathering material for the war effort. Later, in his professional advertising career, he came up with the slogan for Mayor Pete Flaherty, “For Pete’s Sake,” which was used on waste containers.

When he retired and was walking his dog four times a day through his Shadyside neighborhood, he noticed the same litter in the same spot day-after-day.

“It became very apparent that my approach was wrong. I was thinking big, when I really should have been thinking small,” Weinstein says of the public service campaigns he had helped develop.

“I started just concentrating in my own community, and I blocked off an area of about 40 streets and for 16 days I kept a diary of sorts. I went out for an hour, an hour and a half every day — and lo and behold my area was cleaner.”

Weinstein created a plan for getting rid of litter, which he called Citizens Against Litter, where one person can make a difference, and people who care can pick up for people who litter and don’t care.

The nearby United Jewish Federation in Squirrel Hill noticed Weinstein’s efforts in Shadyside and asked for his help. This cleanup coalition, or Redd Up Coalition, which organized volunteers who picked up litter on a regular basis, grew to include Homewood, Point Breeze North and Point Breeze South.


A grass-roots network of leaders

A strategic thinker, Weinstein wanted to go citywide. So, in 2006, he put together a two-year effort to organize a network of leaders who could engage their own neighborhoods for volunteer cleanups.

He kept the movement going by staying in constant communication.

“My work with the network leaders — it’s a constant situation,” he says. “I’m in contact with them through email, through telephone, through my monthly newsletter.

“Through them we’re able to organize significant cleanups, and we’re able to get the volunteers out. And I think that this is what sends a message to people: That if Boris can do it, and Boris continues to do it and doesn’t let up, we also can get involved.”

Weinstein says when motivating and inspiring volunteers and residents, he’s found that the constant, consistent connection is key.

“The notes that I get from people, and I do get them regularly, say, ‘You’re an inspiration to me,’” he says. “I think I’m an inspiration to them because I’m always in their face. They appreciate that it’s on my mind, letting them know and reminding them when we’re having the campaigns.”


Controlling litter with a community effort

Today, Weinstein helps coordinate large-scale cleanups, called Redd Ups, twice a year for 200 to 250 communities in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and surrounding areas, with around 15,000 volunteers per cleanup.

This year’s spring Redd Up, scheduled for April 25 to 27, falls around Earth Day.

The University of Pittsburgh partnered with the fall Redd Up, putting 3,300 students in more than 75 city neighborhoods, townships and boroughs in 2013.

“I’m out to prove that picking up litter can be done by people in the community, and it doesn’t have to cost money,” Weinstein says, who also spent a number of years as a member and chair of the Clean Pittsburgh Commission.

In February, he received the 2013 Iron Eyes Cody Award, the top volunteer honor of Keep America Beautiful, but he’s not done yet.

Along with continuing to coordinate Redd Ups, Weinstein has been advocating a one-year neighbor test to address what he calls the four causes of litter — every day litter, illegal dumpsites, open and overflowing waste containers, and unclean storefronts. He wants city departments to do a thorough job of enforcing existing ordinances, which he believes will help eliminate and control litter.

And he still enjoys being part of cleaning up Pittsburgh.

“I’m still excited when new communities respond to my solicitation. I’m surprised and excited when I get unsolicited dispatches from people who say they want to participate,” he says. “I can’t get out from under it. I don’t want to. Obviously, it’s in my blood and I just want to continue.”

 

How to reach: Boris Weinstein and Citizens Against Litter, (412) 688-9120 or www.citizensagainstlitter.org

Business owners have formally sounded off on consumer review sites like Yelp — and it appears the vast majority are listening, but don’t take reviews as seriously as consumers do.

That’s just one finding of a recent Woodbury University study that explores the power of the consumer, and consumers en masse, to affect business behavior. Sponsored by ReviewInc and led by Kristen Schiele, Ph.D., MBA, assistant professor in the Department of Marketing, School of Business, Woodbury University, the study found that nearly 75 percent of 261 businesses surveyed monitor customer satisfaction in some form. 

“When we began our research, I didn’t know what to expect because no study had been done from the business owner’s perspective, only from the consumer’s,” Schiele says. “I half expected to find that businesspeople were thinking along the same lines. It was surprising to see that review sites were way down the list — just 20 percent of businesses surveyed were monitoring customer satisfaction via these sites.”

Smart Business spoke with Schiele on how savvy businesses can engage with consumers and use crowdsourcing as a growth strategy. Studies at Harvard and Berkeley examined how reviews affected restaurant revenue.

How is your research broader?

Our study is the first to consider business as a whole, looking at review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Google, Yahoo and others. Aside from childcare and pet care, we addressed virtually every industry. We found that marketing services, health care, manufacturing, financial services and real estate are best at dealing with review sites.

Yelp-like sites represent a new platform for consumers to share their experiences with brands and products. Not long ago, the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Reports were all consumers had. Now, companies are trying to figure out this new platform — some of them, anyway. 

Why don’t more businesses take reviews seriously?

The biggest barrier is time. Dealing with day-to-day issues, they don’t have the energy or resources to monitor sites. And some owners prefer not to read negative things. Still, a business can grow, improve and solve problems by looking at criticism, taking it to heart and making changes.

More 
companies are mitigating fallout by using services like ReviewInc, which analyzes qualitative data and presents it in dashboard form. The business can see at a glance what people are saying. 

Suppose a company is on top of the consumer review data. What then? 

Companies that engage with people fare best. If a consumer posts, ‘We stayed at that hotel. The plumbing was bad,’ and the hotel explains how it corrected the problem and adds, ‘Next time you stay at our hotel, we’ll give you a free breakfast,’ that’s a win. But it’s not only about that future promise.

What’s most important is that consumers were heard and responded to — their complaints were validated, and the company showed it cares. Consumers have access to so much information, and so many choices. If industry products and services are similar, why buy from a company that doesn’t care? 

Where do reviews fit in, in a macro sense?

The old model was strictly one-way. Companies told the consumer what they had and that was it. Eventually, it became a two-way conversation where consumers could talk directly to the company. Now we’re seeing three-way communication, with consumers talking to other consumers. Businesses that participate can help foster customer loyalty.

And while it’s beneficial to 
get positive reviews, it’s even more important to get lots of reviews, period. 

So, what’s the biggest takeaway?

Sites like Yelp have turned the tables. The power is in the hands of consumers. It’s important that you aren’t passive. Since you can’t change the platform, how do you change your business to take advantage of a new opportunity to communicate? Understand it and then use it. Use it as a market research tool, which is cheaper than surveys and focus groups.

It’s also more 
authentic since these reflect actual behaviors, not just intentions. Use it as a customer relationship management tool. Then, armed with this information, make strategic decisions to help grow your business.
 
Kristen Schiele, Ph.D., MBA, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing, in the School of Business at Woodbury University. Reach her at (818) 252-5249 or kristen.schiele@woodbury.edu
 
Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Woodbury University