Ray Marano

Friday, 20 December 2002 09:58

Deborah Kelly

When Deborah Kelly, president of Preferred Staffing Inc., got into the staffing business in 1992, she hadn't given much thought to a board of advisers.

Kelly got started by taking over a staffing business that a friend had started and that she had worked for part-time. The owner decided to retire, and while still a full-time employee with Westinghouse at the time, Kelly operated the staffing business out of her home in her off hours, as a single mother with two young children at home.

With that kind of work ethic, it's obvious that Kelly isn't one to shun a challenge, but like a lot of entrepreneurs, she found that while she understood her industry, the business side of things didn't come as easily.

By 1998, Kelly had moved into an office outside her home. The business had grown, and she found herself bogged down in the day-to-day issues of running her business and glossing over the big picture issues. Then a friend mentioned PowerLink, a nonprofit organization that provides advisory boards to women-owned businesses to provide strategic advice and focus.

The PowerLink board, comprised of a lawyer, an HR professional, a former staffing agency owner and a marketing expert, advised Kelly for a year. At their recommendation, she installed an information system to manage her business and formulated a targeted marketing campaign to replace her less focused efforts.

During the late 1990s, the staffing business, including Preferred Staffing, benefited from a strong economy. The last two years have been more of a struggle, says Kelly, but she says having the PowerLink board helped strengthen her 40-employee company and ease it through the leaner times. Without that experience, she says, "it probably would have been even more difficult."

SBN sat down with Kelly to talk about her experiences with PowerLink.

How did you hear about PowerLink?

A good friend of mine was working with a PowerLink board. He was an adviser with PowerLink and he asked me if I would be interested. I filled out the application and was accepted.

Why did you feel compelled to do it?

I thought it would be a great opportunity to pick the brains of people in different fields, to help guide me since I had no prior experience running a business, and just to really make me take a hard look at numbers and things like that.

You really get stuck in the day-to-day operations. You forget to find out if you're making money or not. It was a good process, and after the whole year, I decided to get an up-to-date automated system that does both front and back office. Prior to that, I just had a DOS system that did the payroll, but I didn't have anything to run the front office part of the business.

That was a significant investment, but it was worth it.

What else did you learn?

To be more aware of cash flow and make sure that I stay on top of receivables, and some public relations stuff -- billboards, how to follow through with a campaign, send a postcard, keep track of each one and see which produces results. Before that, it wasn't very coordinated. Now we usually do a postcard, follow up with a letter, then make a personal visit if they're interested.

How can a PowerLink board help a business owner?

I think it can really open their eyes. I know myself, I can get so caught up in the day-to-day little issues, problems I have to solve.

It's just nice to sit down with professionals in different arenas and get their ideas and thoughts and try to implement them and remember that you need to do that, as opposed to putting out fires all day long. You set a goal, then set objectives to meet the goal, then brainstorm around the table to figure out how to accomplish them.

What puts teeth in the recommendations?

First, they're the right thing to do. It's just a little bit of extra work, and I know that I needed that pressure to do it. That's probably the same for most, especially women business owners, who often have families at home.

Why did you feel compelled to do it?

I thought it would be a great opportunity to pick the brains of people in different fields, to help guide me since I had no prior experience running a business, and just to really make me take a hard look at numbers and things like that.

You really get stuck in the day-to-day operations. You forget to find out if you're making money or not. It was a good process, and after the whole year, I decided to get an up-to-date automated system that does both front and back office. How to reach: Preferred Staffing Inc., www.temppreferred.com; PowerLink, www.e-magnify.com

Friday, 20 December 2002 09:54

Pacesetters 2003

By the fourth installment of the Pittsburgh Pacesetters, one would think the region's pool of talented and high-achieving individuals would have been diluted. Not by a long shot.

Pittsburgh is blessed with a rich concentration of business movers at every point along the achievement spectrum, from fast growth new ventures like Red Square Systems to storied entities like Parker/Hunter. Both companies' top executives were named Pacesetters for 2003.

This year's Pacesetters represent a varied group, leading companies in fields ranging from financial services to law to information technology. Some head small companies, while others are in the leadership of very large businesses. There are Pacesetters with companies that have been in business more than a century, and others who are the founders of ventures only a few years old.

What do the 2003 Pacesetters have in common? They demonstrate a genuine commitment to their employees, their customers, their professions and their industries. Some encountered enormous personal or business challenges and overcame them. Most have shown resilience in dealing with change in their company or industry.

And none are so busy that they neglect to spend time aiding causes outside their pure business interests.

All of this year's Pacesetters make substantial contributions in time and talent to charitable causes, and some have performed civic service for many years. Their efforts have contributed to the raising of millions of dollars for charities, and many have chaired or lent their names to fund-raising efforts on behalf of numerous nonprofit organizations.

What is encouraging about many of the Pacesetters and about the region's businesses in general is the strength represented by the breadth and depth of companies in the middle of the pack. The power and prestige of the large public companies, the ones with long legacies like Alcoa, PNC and PPG, are enviable in any business community.

Companies like Henderson Brothers and CLG Inc., headed by 2003 Pacesetters, are in aggregate an asset that measures up favorably when compared to the clout and contributions of the big companies. The 12 companies and organizations represented by this year's Pacesetters employ nearly 4,000 people.

To put the economic impact of a company headed by one of this year's Pacesetters in perspective, consider Kings Family Restaurants: The 35-unit restaurant chain employs more than 3,000 directly and provides additional employment for perhaps hundreds more through its purveyors, vendors and service providers.

For Hartley King, the chain's founder and president, the entrepreneurial zeal remains strong. After 35 years in the business, King is pursuing the development of several Red Robin casual restaurants in the region.

Or ponder the impact of a company like no wall productions inc., which employs only a handful but engages thousands of man-hours each year in the form of the work of tradespeople and professional services providers as it plans and completes its ambitious renovation projects.

We want to thank all who nominated candidates for the 2003 Pacesetters. We think this year's group of nominees in every way meets the same high standards as those selected the last three years. We offer our congratulations to all, and look forward to another fine group to select from in 2004.

Friday, 20 December 2002 09:37

X & Y factors

Red Square Systems provides network support services to small- and medium-sized companies, but its CEO, Ian James, places as high a value on his employees' interpersonal skills as he does on their technical abilities.

"We can't have people who are unable to communicate," says James.

Ironically, while Red Square offers an environment that one would think should appeal to tech-oriented Gen Xers and Gen Yers -- open office architecture, lots of autonomy and excellent pay and benefits -- the average age of service personnel is over 40. That's not by design, says James, but essentially a function of the screening tools Red Square uses to qualify its service providers, as it calls them.

That's not because the company doesn't have employee-friendly human resources policies. Earlier this year, Red Square won a People Do Matter award, given to companies in Southwestern Pennsylvania that demonstrate strategies to retain a diverse, high-caliber work force.

Members of Gen X and Gen Y, it turns out, tend to have different communication styles than their older counterparts, says Joanne Sujansky, a leadership coach and founder of the KEYGroup. Gen Xers, the first latchkey kids, learned to be independent from an early age and virtually invented multitasking, says Sujansky.

Gen Y members had rich opportunities for learning through after-school programs, perfected multitasking and use computers for everything -- recreation, getting information, communicating with friends and family.

Authoritarian management just doesn't work with the younger set, says Sujansky. Managers must be coaches, not tyrants, if they expect to attract young talent and keep it.

"They don't want to be micromanaged," says Sujansky.

They do, however, appreciate feedback about their performance.

Flexible work scheduling is important to younger workers, says Sujansky. And experience has led them to value work-life balance.

"They watched the boomers burn out," says Sujansky.

Younger workers expect to learn skills that will help them either on their current job or make them more marketable. And they don't always look at their careers as progressive steps up the corporate ladder.

"They'll go across jobs to get experience," says Sujansky.

She also suggests that while it can be a challenge to both recruit and manage a diverse work force, a genuine effort that reaches out to recruit from as wide a range of groups as possible sends a positive signal to younger workers.

Says Sujansky: "I think Gen X and Gen Y value that."

How to reach: Red Square Systems, www.redsquaresystems.com; KEYGroup, www.keygrp.com

Tuesday, 26 November 2002 08:42

Hitting the MARC

At MARC USA, people were having a hard time communicating with each other.

It's not difficult to understand why, given the public relations and ad agency's rapid growth in the late 1990s. In a few years, MARC had created a national presence by acquiring agencies in Chicago, Dallas and a half dozen other cities.

The purchases brought expertise, new markets and more diverse creativity, but it also fragmented the organization. Of 500 MARC employees, 300 had come to the agency through acquisitions.

"The agencies were operating relatively autonomously," says Lee Brody, vice president and director of corporate communications for MARC.

In January 2001, all of the agencies took on the MARC USA name, but the agency knew that integrating all of its sites into a single team under the MARC flag and having the ability to tap into the expertise and experience employees at all the offices was critical to its success.

MARC's initial effort was to tie the agencies together through a corporate intranet it dubbed I-MARC, which provided general information about the agency and a database of employees. But technological hurdles -- users needed an ID and password to access the site, for instance -- kept employees from visiting the site regularly and going deeply into it to find the tools and utilities available.

Deb Pratt, vice president and information technology director, set to work with the help of some of the agency's creative people to make the site utilitarian and easy to use.

MARC developed a site with a page for each employee that provides biographical information, descriptions of project work and a resume of their expertise. Employees can customize their page to select local, national or industry news of interest to them, and can access corporate materials such as human resources and benefits information.

The site also contains examples of creative work done for clients in every city so employees in various markets can access them for ideas or background. It even has records of pitches that didn't land an account. A corporate extranet allows employees to conduct Web conferences, making it easier for team members from different cities to work on a single project.

While most of the features and information resided on the site from the start, the revised version made them easier to find and use.

Says Pratt: "They were all there in the first phase, but nobody could find them." How to reach: MARC USA, www.marc-usa.com

Tuesday, 26 November 2002 08:39

You're the winner

When Karen Puchalsky and Bill Claire partnered to launch Innovate E-Commerce in 1997, one of their goals was to make the Inc 500. This year, the company reached that goal, placing 111th on the magazine's prestigious annual list.

And that's not all. Innovate E-Commerce has swooped up an armful of awards this year. Puchalsky, president and COO, was named one of the Best 50 Women in Business in Pennsylvania. The firm was chosen as one of the top 10 information technology companies in Pittsburgh in the Pittsburgh Technology Council's Tech 50 awards. And Claire and Puchalsky earned a place as finalists in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year competition.

The awards didn't come without effort; it's no easy task to make the Inc 500. A business has to demonstrate outstanding revenue growth -- Innovate E-Commerce grew from $214,000 in its first year in business to $3.7 million in 2001, or 1,647 percent over five years -- and provide extensive financial documentation to verify it.

Claire, Innovate E-Commerce's CEO, and Puchalsky acknowledge they have carefully selected awards programs like the Inc 500 that would have the most impact for them in their business and made a conscious effort to pursue them.

But as prestigious as the achievements are for the e-commerce consulting firm's founders, they are the first to point out that landing the accolades is not an end in itself, and that they won't produce automatic results in your business -- although they certainly won't hurt.

"It's not going to make someone pick up the phone and call us, but it may make the decision go our way over someone else," says Puchalsky.

For Claire and Puchalsky, the honors are a result of a solid and focused strategic effort to build a business, not the other way around.

"It wasn't like it was a destination," says Claire. "It's a milestone or marker on the journey we're taking to build a great company."

That doesn't mean the laurels can't have more immediate as well as long-term benefits. Innovate E-Commerce gets a bang out of the immediate publicity the awards programs generate.

The Tech 50 awards led to at least a half a dozen articles in local magazines and newspapers. The company cites the awards in its overall marketing communications and uses them to reinforce its overall branding effort, a function particularly important for a company in the technology sector.

"Branding is thought to be especially critical in marketing high-tech products and services because often the products and services themselves are too technically complex to communicate to general business audiences," says Puchalsky. "So instead, we surround the company image in success, find opportunities to gain visibility, and support the sales effort through name or branding recognition."

And while awards won't make the orders stream in, they can open doors.

"It's helped from the standpoint of when you go in to talk to somebody, you've got more credibility than some of the others you're competing with," says Claire.

And achieving goals like placing in the Inc 500 can allow you to tap into a peer group that can provide inspiration and education that otherwise may be unavailable or inaccessible. Puchalsky points out that the judging process in most awards competitions involves review by high-ranking executives and business owners, a good way to introduce your company to influential business leaders.

In the case of the Inc 500, the awards include an opportunity to meet with others on the list at a national conference, as well as at other events where Inc 500 company executives gather, greet and exchange ideas and growth strategies.

Says Claire: "Wouldn't you like to have a couple of days with 350 of the fastest-growing companies, the founders and CEOs of those companies, to find out and learn something about what they do and maybe leverage it?"

HR benefits

While many of the benefits of earning awards come from outside the company, the prizes can have a positive effect internally as well.

Puchalsky says the awards boost employee morale at Innovate E-Commerce by reassuring them that even in a tough economy and in an industry where businesses often experience short lifecycles, their company is growing.

"Especially in these economic times, where a lot of our employees see friends being laid off and they see the company getting awards for growth, it gives them a feeling of comfort," says Puchalsky.

Michael Magnotto, owner of a Shop 'n' Save supermarket in Hermitage, says a feature article about his 67,000-square-foot store in Progressive Grocer, a leading trade publication for supermarket operators and others in the food industry, had little direct impact on his business. Because the article appeared in a trade magazine, his customers had little opportunity to see it. Magnotto nonetheless views the recognition as a great morale-builder for his employees.

"It's always encouraging and positive when someone else talks about the things that are happening in your store," says Magnotto, whose family has operated stores in the town for 92 years.

For Magnotto, who holds events like Valentine's Day dinners for his employees, "you can't do enough positive reinforcement."

For growing companies looking for first-rate employees, the publicity surrounding awards can attract job-seekers looking for high-quality companies.

"Whenever we win an award, we are deluged with resumes," says Ian James, president of Red Square Systems, a South Side-based network service provider that has won two Tech 50 awards and a People Do Matter award, given for practicing innovative human resources strategies that attract and retain employees.

"We've found that our awards make it easier for us to continue to attract top talent," says Rich Wendell, vice president of marketing and strategy for Red Square. "Job-seekers definitely pay attention to which organizations are good employers and which are doing well financially."

A reputation builder

For Lou Stanasolovich, president and CEO of Legend Financial Advisors, being named one of the top professionals in his industry has had a tangible impact on his business. The publicity that comes as a result of the awards he receives always results in calls from potential clients.

Stanasolovich has been named one of the top financial advisers in the country by Worth magazine six times, and one of the 150 best advisers for physicians by Medical Economics magazine. Legend Financial is one of the few firms in the country, says Stanasolovich, that has two advisers on the Worth list, a factor that substantially raises the prestige of his firm.

For Legend Financial, the impact of being on the list is both immediate and long-term. Stanasolovich and a second award-winner at the firm, Diane Pearson, use the awards to enhance their professional biographies, documents that Stanasolovich says are the single most important credentials in the eyes of potential clients.

But for Stanasolovich and the others, accolades mean little if their companies can't deliver on their promises. A good reputation is hard to acquire but easy to squander if you fail to live up to it.

For Red Square Systems and Innovate E-Commerce, that means continuing to offer outstanding service to customers. For financial planners and investment advisors like Legend Financial, it means standing out in a crowd in an industry that doesn't always enjoy the most favorable public image and whose practitioners rely heavily on reputation and referrals.

"The bottom line," says Stanasolovich, "is you've got to know what you're talking about." How to reach: Innovate E-Commerce, www.innovateec.com; Legend Financial Advisors, www.legend-financial.com; Red Square Systems, www.redsquaresystems.com; Tech 50 Awards, www.pghtech50.org; Inc magazine, www.inc.com, Worth magazine, www.worth.com, Progressive Grocer, www.progressivegrocer.com


A semiprecious gem?

Joseph Bonasso received an industry award that he's proud of, yet he feels he can't trumpet too loudly about it.

Bonasso, owner of J.A.B Jewelry in McMurray, earned first prize in September on his first try in a competition held by the Pennsylvania Jewelers Association. The winning piece: a ring Bonasso designed and crafted that features an aquamarine and round diamonds in a white gold setting.

After 15 years in the business he built by doing custom work and repairs for about 20 other jewelers, Bonasso is attempting to make the custom-designed jewelry sold through his on-premises showroom a bigger part of his business.

But because the bulk of his work -- about 75 percent -- is custom work for other jewelers, bandying too much about the award could sour his jeweler customers if they perceive that he is competing too directly with them.

Most of J.A.B. Jewelry's design work comes through word of mouth. Despite a growing retail trade through his showroom, Bonasso says he does no advertising, so there is limited value to the award in his marketing efforts.

Still, he says the award received notice in the industry trade press, recognition that can only help his business and raise his stature among jewelers. And he sees the value of the award in helping him to pursue his long-term goal of doing more custom work.

"I definitely want to promote the specialty stuff, because that's what we do," says Bonasso.

Tuesday, 26 November 2002 08:36

Making the pitch

An entrepreneur eager to raise money for his fledgling company is cut off a few sentences into his pitch.

"Wait a minute. I'm bored," says Mel Pirchesky, principal of Eagle Ventures and a dealmaker who has raised $40 million from high-net-worth individuals for various ventures.

Fortunately for the entrepreneur, it's just a workshop to illustrate how to hone a pitch to a prospective investor or to anyone who might lead to a potential funding source.

Pirchesky says there's no magic to raising money, it just takes a lot of hard work. None of his deals, he says, have been easy, but all have required an effective pitch to investors.

The key to an effective pitch is to refine it so that it captures interest in a couple of sentences.

"If you don't catch their attention right away, you'll lose them," says Pirchesky.

Great deals get funded even in bad times -- Pirchesky got a deal funded in the wake of the stock market crash of 1987 and raised $1 million for a grocery delivery company after the spectacular failure of Webvan, a similar venture.

"If you have a great deal -- and if you're not getting it funded -- it's not for the lack of money," he says. "It's all in how you're articulating or not articulating."

Pirchesky offered this advice to would-be money-raisers:

* Be enthusiastic. No one is going to show interest in your deal if you don't demonstrate passion for it.

* Be prepared. Hone your pitch so you grab an investor's attention quickly.

* Practice. Test your pitch over and over to make sure your target is getting the message. Seek out every opportunity to try out the pitch.

* Revise. If you're not getting the money, you must change your pitch.

* Have a strong revenue model. Investors want to know how -- and how fast -- the business is going to make money.

* Get the right jockey. "Do you want to be rich or do you want to be the boss?" Pirchesky asks. You may be a great entrepreneur but not much of a CEO. If that's the case, be honest and hire a professional manager to run the venture.

* Be truthful. There is no perfect deal, but that's no reason to be deceptive about your company in your pitch. How to reach: Eagle Ventures, www.EagleVentures.biz

Thursday, 31 October 2002 10:31

Accounting heads

It wasn't much of a surprise to anyone at accounting firm Alpern Rosenthal that clients often asked for referrals for accounting and financial personnel. After all, who would know better than another accountant if a professional might be looking for a new position or was between jobs?

For years, the firm informally referred job seekers to its clients when they asked and when it was aware of a qualified candidate. Often, those in the firm referred friends or associates for an opening.

The demand was strong enough to justify the formation of Alpern Rosenthal's Corporate Placement Services Group in January to recruit job candidates on a fee basis.

Alpern Rosenthal hired an experienced recruiter with a background in accounting to locate qualified candidates for client openings. The group recruits and places financial and accounting personnel from staff accountants to chief financial officers.

The effort has been successful, with the firm placing between two and four candidates a month, says Elisabeth Leach, Alpern Rosenthal's director of marketing. Since the launch of the Corporate Placement Services Group, the firm has identified another recruitment need and launched a second effort.

With a considerable practice in technology consulting, Alpern Rosenthal found that its technology clients were looking for a way to fill gaps in their employment ranks as well.

While it saw another opportunity, it opted not to go it alone. This time, it allied with Consulting Professional Resources Inc., a Ross Township technology and personnel placement company, to help identify and screen IT job candidates.

Leach says the alliance with Consulting Professional Resources gives the Corporate Placement Services Group the capability to recruit for IT positions in computer installation and maintenance, Web programming, data base programming and customization of application software such as that used in used in banking, manufacturing and engineering.

And while the recruitment business offers new revenue streams for the accounting firm, Leach points out that Corporate Placement Services Group needs to be selective about who it recruits so that it doesn't jeopardize its primary relationships with its accounting and consulting clients.

Says Leach: "We have a vested interest in making sure that the placement is successful." How to reach: Alpern Rosenthal, www.alpern.com; Consulting Professional Resources, www.cpr-pa.com

Monday, 30 September 2002 09:26

Bugging your customers

In a search for a suitable place for dinner, my companion and I looked at the menu in the window of a restaurant we had yet to patronize to examine its board of fare. Between the glass and the menu were a half-dozen dead flies and a lifeless mosquito obscuring some of the establishment's offerings.

We were hungry, so we overlooked the warning sign and entered anyway.

"Sit anywhere you want," the bartender told us as we walked in with the "Where's-the-hostess?" look on our faces. We selected a table near a side door and a waitress took and filled our beverage order, two soft drinks, totaling $4.

We hesitated a bit ordering, so the waitress left our table and took much too long to return. The pulpy pop music was way too loud and a fly that had yet to meet its fate buzzed the table.

There was an army of people working the floor but a shortage of help in the kitchen, apparently, because it was a long wait before our food was served. Our order consisted of a salad, a side of black beans and rice, and a burger, no fries, all pretty uninspired.

Then there's the Nice Italian Restaurant near my home. Scrupulously clean, the food and the service are outstanding. A neatly dressed gentleman with a shock of wavy gray hair who shows us to our table usually greets us. The servers are as young as any at the House of Flies but friendly, chatty and very attentive, and the music consists of syrupy old Jerry Vale or Dean Martin records, placed appropriately deep in the background.

The check is a little more than at the House of Flies, but we usually walk out satisfied, with a doggy bag and the sense that they appreciate our business.

The one criticism I'll make of both is that they don't give customers a ready opportunity to rate the food and service. Some restaurants offer comment cards, and I've filled them out, sent them in and, in two cases, they've responded by changing the things I commented on.

My advice to the House of Flies is obvious. To the Nice Italian Restaurant, put tomatoes on the salad instead of beets.

And to anyone who cares about what their customers think, keep a fly on the wall.

Tuesday, 17 September 2002 10:21

401(k) still OK?

Who could argue with the notion of investing in a 401(k) plan?

Participant contribute pre-tax dollars to an account that earns dividends. In some cases, the employer matches employee contributions. Almost without exception, employees can take their contributions and any dividends earned with them when they leave the company.

For employers, a 401(k) can be a great retention tool, especially when a company match is fully vested over several years.

Still, employers can find convincing employees to participate in their 401(k)s a tough task. And when employee accounts take a hit in down markets, the task can become that much more arduous.

"When the market is in as bad a shape as it is now, it's a tough sell," says Nicole Kelly, a principal in the Pittsburgh office of Buck Consultants.

Kelly says Buck Consultants educates younger employees by pointing out how a very modest amount saved regularly can build into a substantial sum over time. She also suggests putting the plan into terms that particular employee group can understand. To give employees of the Hard Rock Café a sense of how the money could grow over time, she explained to them that they could look at it as "a 150 percent tip."

Kelly suggests employers communicate information about the plan's performance on a regular basis and put short-term fluctuations into perspective so employees understand the value of a long-range investment strategy and don't grow preoccupied with temporary earnings peaks and valleys.

Employers should provide as much technical information as possible about investments in the plan, a description of the nature of available investments and general investment guidelines for asset allocation.

Pete McCormick, a lawyer and principal in Buck Consultants Pittsburgh office, suggests employers review their plans regularly to determine if their performance is adequate in the context of the market's general performance. A dip in recent quarters wouldn't be unusual, for instance, given the prevailing trend in the market, nor would poor performance in a single quarter necessarily indicate that a change is called for. But employers should have a process in place to review their plan and be prepared to make changes if required.

Says McCormick: "Your best bet as an employer is to establish that process with professional advice and follow that process."

Buck Consultants

Friday, 30 August 2002 10:41

Kathy Yee

 

Kathy Yee, owner of Ya Fei Chinese restaurant in Robinson Towne Center, was at home nursing a cold on April 28, 2000, when she got word that two of her employees had been shot in her restaurant.

In the course of a shooting spree that started in the killer's Mt. Lebanon neighborhood, claimed the lives of five and left one paralyzed, Richard Baumhammers targeted minorities and killed them with seemingly calculated precision. Two of the dead were Yee's employees, Thao Pham and Ji-Ye Sun.

The murders took their toll. Half of her employees quit. Sales dropped 50 percent. Yee was depressed and contemplated closing her doors, but knew it would be a distressed sale. More important, Yee knew that closing the restaurant would be a disservice to her customers and her employees -- and a victory for the fear Baumhammers had wrought.

"If I quit, he wins," says Yee.

She brought in crisis counselors to assure her and others that the deaths of the employees weren't their fault. Yee, prominent among the region's Chinese restaurateurs, asked fellow operators to close their establishments and attend a candlelight vigil in the parking lot in front of Ya Fei a week after the shootings.

She says about 2,000 people showed up for the service.

Yee got help from customers and fellow restaurateurs and even a boost from popular TV and radio talk show host Fred Honsberger, a customer who urged his listeners to help Yee and her employees through a tough time by patronizing Ya Fei.

"I got a lot of support, and that helped me to be strong," says Yee.

Sales at Ya Fei rebounded, but it took much longer for the pain of the emotional scars to relent. Customers had a hard time coming in, says Yee. One regular customer parked his car in front of Ya Fei on four occasions, only to drive off without entering the restaurant.

Only on the fifth visit did he manage to come inside.

This year, Pittsburgh Magazine chose Yee as its Restaurateur of the Year. It would be easy to conclude it was a sympathy vote were it not for Yee's extensive contributions to the local restaurant community. She consults with the Allegheny County Health Department, writing a food handler test for Chinese speakers and helping Chinese restaurant operators comply with food safety standards.

And she is vice president of the Chinese Restaurant Association of Western Pennsylvania and on the committee of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.

Yee talked with SBN about the shootings at Ya Fei, how her business was affected, why she got into the restaurant business and her passion for teaming California wine with Asian food.

Where were you when the shootings occurred at Ya Fei?

"That was during my allergy season; March, April is allergy season for me. I had the allergy symptoms, so I thought it was the allergies. I got worse on a Thursday night. The next day I didn't feel any better. I called and said I wasn't coming in until the next day.

One of my employees called me on the phone and told me Tony and Jerry got shot. I was upset with them because I thought they were joking, and they called me when I'm sick in bed to tell me that Tony and Jerry were shot. I hung up the phone and realized that my employees wouldn't joke about something like that."

Yee turned on the TV and saw the Ya Fei storefront on the screen, emergency and news vehicles parked in the lot and crowds of onlookers. She drove to the scene, hoping and praying that her employees had survived the shootings.

The police took her to a storeroom and questioned her. Did she or her employees have any enemies? Was there anyone who had a grudge against her or her workers?

Then she got the news she dreaded. The police asked her to identify the bodies of the employees who were killed. She said she would, but another employee volunteered to identify them.

Ya Fei stayed closed for more than a week while Yee and her employees tried to deal with the loss of their friends and co-workers. Grief counselors intervened, and Yee tried to overcome the feeling that she was responsible for the deaths of her employees and the thoughts of how close she herself came to death.

She spends much of her time at the front of the house, answering the phone and greeting customers. Had she been at the restaurant at the time, she theorizes, she might have been killed as well.

Says Yee: "At the time I felt responsible because they worked for me and helped me in my restaurant, and it was all my fault. That was my reaction at the time."

How did your customers respond after the shootings at Ye Fei?

"They were afraid to come in, they didn't know how to face me. Eighty percent of them, when they'd walk in, would start to cry.

"They didn't know how to handle the situation, not because they didn't want to come in and support me, but they just didn't know how to handle it. I thought about Baumhammers every day.

"Even now I still think about him. When you turned the TV on, he was on every channel."

How did you get into the restaurant business?

"A friend had a restaurant downtown. One night they were short-handed, so they called me to help. I came and they put me to work waitressing. Fortunately, it wasn't too busy, so I was able to handle it all by myself. I worked there on Fridays and Saturdays, and I kind of liked the business."

Yee went to work for Anna Kao, who owned a prominent restaurant in Fox Chapel. Kao put Yee to work doing everything from waiting tables to managing the operations. She liked the business and Kao saw Yee's enthusiasm and aptitude and encouraged her to open her own restaurant.

"Anna asked me if I ever thought about having a restaurant of my own. I said 'No, I don't think I have the ability to do it.' She said 'I think you can.' So that's how I got the idea, because of her. That was a very big influence."

Are you still friends?

"I was just at her house last week. I'm going out with her daughter tomorrow. We are still very good friends."

Is owning a restaurant what you expected?

"I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of pressure because you have to make all kinds of decisions and you can't afford to make too many mistakes. If you expect all of these hard (demands), you'll come out OK. It's very different when you're an employee."

Why did you locate in Robinson Towne Center?

"Thirteen years ago it was a newly developed area. The landlord said there was a lot of promise, that a lot of businesses were going to come in. I came to study the area. It was a growing area and (Pittsburgh International Airport) was being built. So there were a lot of reasons for me to pick this location.

"For 12 years we kind of struggled along. A lot of businesses have come in and out. The Point has grown like crazy in the past two years, so we have a lot of traffic. And (Robinson Towne Mall) opened. Plus, we've been here for 13 years and people know us and that helps.

"Last year was a very good year, but then after Sept. 11 we struggled a little again. The stock market isn't doing well, a lot of people got laid off nearby, so we kind of hurt a little."

Yee stands out from other Asian restaurants in part, she says, because of the wine and food tasting events she holds at Ya Fei and her experiments with teaming Asian cuisine with California wine. She's visited California with a Pittsburgh wine aficionado group to sample the wines and gain an understanding of how to select the characteristics that will complement the subtleties of Pacific Rim foods.

Yee says that one customer, a Steelers fan, skipped a Monday night game so he wouldn't miss one of the restaurant's tastings.

What does it take to be successful in the restaurant business?

"You have to have a lot of passion, and I do have a lot of passion. I'm always thinking about how I can improve it. I've tried a lot of new things, a lot of Pacific Rim cooking, and I experiment in food and wine tasting. I have to give a lot of credit to my CPA, because he's a wine connoisseur and he kind of taught me how to pair the food and the wine together." How to reach: Ya Fei Chinese restaurant, (412) 788-9388