Pittsburgh (2550)

Monday, 31 December 2001 08:02

The doctor is in

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Carol Utay isn't your average entrepreneur because her business is secondary to her occupation as an educator.

After a long career as an educator and educational administrator, Utay decided to establish an educational center to address the specific needs of individuals. As executive director of Total Learning Centers, Wexford, that's just what she does.

Founded in 1999, Total Learning Centers offers a broad spectrum of services for school-aged children, adults and couples seeking professional help in adding to their skills or overcoming skill deficits. The services can be described as evaluation, tutoring, counseling and training.

Says Utay: "There are well-established models out there, national organizations that offer similar services. But there's a difference. They operate, in my opinion, on client retention, holding on to clients to generate more fees. Our philosophy is to focus very specifically on each individual and meet their needs in the most direct manner possible."

Utay admits her "get-them-in-and-out" philosophy may not be the best money-making technique, but she considers it both an ethical and effective long-term business strategy.

"If we do a good job for our clients and are affordable, our reputation will spread by word of mouth," she says. "In the big picture, that's where I'd like to see our business coming from -- clients, their families, their peers and educational counselors."

Return of the native

A Pittsburgh-area native who graduated from Mount Lebanon High School, Utay completed a bachelor's degree in elementary education at the University of Pittsburgh and earned master's and doctorate degrees at East Texas State University, where her studies emphasized special education and learning disabilities.

It was during a study abroad program that she met her husband, Joe Utay, a Ph.D. psychologist from Dallas. The couple settled in Dallas, where they pursued their careers in different but related specialties, and later lived and worked in Kentucky.

In 1999, the family, now including a daughter, Andrea, returned to the Pittsburgh area to establish a learning center. Joe Utay is director of evaluation and counseling services for the organization.

"When you study the demographics, you can see that Wexford is a natural location for us," says Utay. "Of course, there are other communities in and around the Pittsburgh area that are just as viable. So one of our future objectives may be to open a second center, possibly in the eastern suburbs."

All-star team approach

Initially, Total Learning Centers was Carol and Joe Utay. Today there are 10 full-time employees and three dozen part-time associates, necessitated by the wide variety of services offered.

Utay located her business in 5,000 square fee in the Pine Tree Shoppes, a shopping mall on Perry Highway.

"It's a really ideal location for us," Utay said. "Pine Tree Shoppes is located at a natural crossroads of the community. It's easy to find and there's ample parking. Just as important are the plenty of other facilities nearby. Many of our clients are young people who are driven here by parents or other adults. And not every adult wants to sit in the lobby and read a book while the client is working with us."

Culminating a life's work

For a woman who'd spent her career in large, public educational institutions and organizations, the shift to the ownership and management of a small, specialized private company has been an education.

"There is no single, dramatic moment in our development that stands out in my memory," she says. "The challenge for me has been to acquire skills and a comfort level for some basic and not so basic business, organizational and ownership activities.

"Sure, I was district technology coordinator for Jessamine County Schools (Nicholasville, Ky.) and administered a $1.2 million budget. But that didn't prepare me to negotiate with suppliers when we bought equipment and supplies for the center."

Total Learning Centers is not just another career move. Utay considers it the culmination of everything she's done.

"This is it," she says. "This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my career. I expect there will be major business decisions along the way, like whether or not we establish one or two more locations. But as for the work itself, this is what I want to be doing."

Her principal challenge will be to balance the demands of entrepreneurship against her talents and instincts for evaluating, counseling and educating.

"There's a natural concern about becoming too much the business person and less the educator," she says. "So I continue to think of myself as an educator and to value my interaction with individual clients, helping them develop their special and unique skills and helping them to achieve their dreams." How to reach: Carol Utay, (724)940-1090.

Monday, 31 December 2001 07:55

Merit raises hold

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If you look to the big companies to set the pace for merit increases for your employees, your outlay will be about the same this year as it was in 2001.

Towers Perrin surveyed 40 major Pittsburgh employers and found that most respondents expect to pay out merit increases at about the same level in 2002 as they did in 2001.

The study indicates participating companies overall are taking an optimistic view of the economy, says a Towers Perrin consultant.

"Merit increase budgets tend to be a pretty good barometer of a company's business outlook because wage and salary costs make up the bulk of controllable operating expenses for most businesses in today's increasingly service-based economy, " says Steve Pakela, a compensation consultant with Towers Perrin in Pittsburgh.

Some companies are being cautious, however. The 10 companies in the survey that gave smaller-than-average merit increases in 2001 plan 2002 increases of only 3 percent, about 25 percent less than last year's level in most categories.

The 10 with higher-than-average increases in 2001 are also planning smaller increases in 2002. This suggests a heightened sense of concern about the economy in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the report.

Ray Marano

Monday, 31 December 2001 07:50

Health care costs climb

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A tight labor market in 2001 convinced lots of employers to defer passing on increased health care benefits costs last year.

Not this year, according to a survey by benefits consultant Towers Perrin.

Large employers' costs will jump about 14 percent this year, the study indicates, and many employers are passing along a share of those costs to their employees.

"Both locally and nationally, 2002 will bring the sharpest increase in health plan costs that companies have seen in many years," says Dan O'Malley, leader of Towers Perrin's health and welfare consulting practice in Pittsburgh.

Employees who received small increases in salary or wages for 2002 may see a reduction in take-home pay, says O'Malley.

Ray Marano

Monday, 31 December 2001 07:41

E-mail effectiveness

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When the pressure is on to cut expenses, some feel marketing budgets are fair game.

Many business decision-makers erroneously pull back their marketing in a down economy because they are not marketing for the right reasons. Marketing is a long-term activity, not a sales tactic.

The outcome of marketing done well is attracting and keeping the "right" clients, those for whom your company delivers the most value at a fair price. It's an activity that should be happening all the time, not in fits and starts.

But when revenue is down, it makes sense to stretch dollars and find the most cost-effective ways to have perceptions in the marketplace keep pace with the realities of business.

Making adjustments at the tactical, not the strategic, level is the hallmark of a wise marketing professional.

This is one reason the popularity of e-mail marketing has grown. Boosted by the events of Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare, e-mail marketing has begun to play a lead role in the marketing mix.

It is cost-effective, direct and quick to deploy. Recipients can delete it if they're not interested, minimizing the nuisance factor. And more important, they can easily pass it on to many others if it's interesting or useful.

While the messages you send are important, it is much more important to gather information about who is reading, who is responding and what they are telling you.

Tracking, gathering intelligent feedback and fostering perceptions in the minds of your prospects and customers is the real currency of e-mail marketing and, in fact, of marketing altogether.

Developing an e-strategy component to your marketing plan is common sense. I believe it was Voltaire who said there's nothing common about common sense. Andrea Fitting is CEO of Fitting Creative, a Pittsburgh-based agency specializing in strategic marketing and breakthrough creative. Reach her at (412) 434-6934.

Monday, 31 December 2001 07:34

Accounting tips

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Here are tips to keep you out of trouble.

  • Understand the basics of accounting and its terminology. Consider taking an accounting basics course.

  • Beware of mixing personal and business transactions. Keeping separate records for each is important for both IRS and credit history reasons.

  • Realize that no one can be an expert at everything. Hire an accountant to keep your finances straight and to stay in compliance with the IRS.
Source: Markovitz Dugan & Associates
Thursday, 29 November 2001 18:09

Tough times

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For many companies, this is a very difficult time. The tragic events of Sept. 11 pushed an already struggling economy over the edge for many industries.

If you want to survive, it's important to have a list of key measures to navigate your business through these tough times.

Each day, I talk to business owners who have high debt levels and are easily discouraged. The Federal Reserve Bank keeps dropping interest rates, but consumer confidence continues to decline, unemployment is rising, and there doesn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. It's hard to give people advice when they ask what they should do because there are so many unknowns.

This changing business climate will invariably result in changes in many companies. Change brings uncertainty to your work force, which leads to a drop in productivity as people wonder about job security and the viability of their employer.

Internal and external communication are key. Internally, it's important so everyone is on the same page. If people are not aware of what's going on within the company, they will be forced to reach their own conclusions.

This is bad for morale, because conclusions may be based on incorrect information. Everything needs to be put in perspective. If you are in management, it is your responsibility to keep employees informed.

Externally, it's important to communicate so customers and vendors can work with you. Make sure your relationships are strong and that they are aware of what's going on with your company.

When you're not sure what to do, honesty is the best policy. You'll be surprised how willing people are to help if they're asked -- look at how much money was donated to charity after the Sept. 11 disaster.

Here are five more measures to help navigate your business through a rocky economy:

1. Manage your fixed costs. Continue to find ways to bring these down. It's important to closely manage your budgets in a time like this. When you can replace fixed costs with variable costs, you should do so.

2. Provide more value. When it comes to someone deciding between you and your competitor, this is how you differentiate yourself. Find ways to give the customer a little more than your competition does.

3. Measure investments, and measure every cost. It's important for your investment to yield a return. Set a realistic timeline of when you expect a return, and if it doesn't happen, cut your cost. Look at each piece of your business and see which are paying for themselves and which are not.

4. Refine your niche. Position yourself in the marketplace as a dominant player and distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack to make it clear why people should do business with you. Concentrate on your core products or services and do what you do best.

5. Adapt quickly. Make decisions in a timely manner. During times like these, leadership is needed. Adapt quickly to the circumstances around you or your competitors will. But don't make blind decisions; it's important to consult with your management team, then act based on the feedback you've gathered.

Now is not the time to get discouraged. It's time to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. The boom times are over for now, and it's much more difficult to run a business than it was just a few months ago.

Not every business will survive, but those that carefully navigate the perils ahead will come out stronger and ultimately more profitable.

Fred Koury (fkoury@sbnnet.com) is president and CEO of SBN Magazine.

Thursday, 29 November 2001 18:00

Unsold on selling

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My motivation to sell my company's products and services has suffered since the terrorist attacks. Selling seems to be a rather selfish pursuit in light of all that has happened. Could you share your thoughts?

The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the continuing episodes of terrorist-driven germ warfare have had an impact on us all.

They have caused many salespeople to reflect on and question their career choices. I've heard salespeople say things like, "What's the point of trying to make a lot of money when we could be dead tomorrow?" or "I am not going to make the sacrifices I used to make for my career. I want to enjoy life more."

Frankly, I think this reflection is one of the true blessings to come out of this horrific tragedy. I also think that if the only value derived from what you sell is your paycheck, it's time to find another career or another product to sell.

The fact is that nothing has really changed as a result of the terrorist attacks on America other than our perceptions. In reality, we have never been secure.

In America, many deny that bad things could ever befall us. But terrible things happen to people all the time. We have always been at risk -- we risk being in a terrible accident, developing a life-threatening illness or losing a loved one.

Our lives can be radically changed or ended in a heartbeat.

So what does this have to do with selling? A lot. Our beliefs and attitudes have a huge impact on our ability to sell. To be good, you have to believe in three things: yourself, the company you work for and its products and services, and the marketplace you sell into.

If you don't feel good about yourself, you can't handle the rejection or take the risks that you must to be effective. If you don't feel good about yourself, you will never put yourself in a position where you could lose, and therefore, you will not have the chance to win as often.

If you don't believe in the company you represent or the products and services you sell, you can't sell them without feeling like a fraud. And if you truly believe that people are not very interested in buying your products and services given the current state of the economy or the war on terrorism, you will not make the effort necessary to bring in new business. Why waste your time?

While it shouldn't take a tragedy for us as salespeople to reflect on these things, now is as good a time as any to reassess what we do for a living. The fact is that money is not the most important thing in the world; relationships are. This was true before, and it is still true today. Achieving worldly success is a hollow victory if we haven't enjoyed ourselves and enriched the lives of others along the way.

If your life isn't in balance because you are chasing career success and higher earnings, it's time to change the way you do things. Your goals should be more than purely financial. You need to set family goals, spiritual goals, educational goals, professional goals, social goals and health goals as well. These bring a richness to life that money alone can't.

We need to periodically assess what we sell to ensure it serves a purpose and enriches the lives of the people we sell to. This doesn't mean we should all become pharmaceutical salespeople selling antibiotics that will cure anthrax, but it is important that we think about what we sell to make sure it fulfills a purpose we feel good about.

Even though most of us don't sell the cure for cancer, we do help cure a variety of problems that plague the people we sell to.

Step back and look at what you sell from a broader perspective. For instance, while selling advertising may seem unimportant to some, the salesperson isn't just selling space in a magazine or time on the radio. He or she is helping a small business grow and prosper, and that small business is responsible for the livelihood of those who work there.

The salesperson who sells water treatment chemicals to industry doesn't just sell chemicals. He or she helps to ensure our environment is not harmed by the byproducts of the things that bring pleasure to our lives.

Think about what you sell, and if you don't feel good about it, get out of the business or get a job selling something else. Only con artists can sell something they don't believe in.

But before you abandon your company or the products and services you sell, call some of your good customers and ask whether the products or services you have lost faith in still matter to them. You will be pleasantly surprised.

Don't give up. Take the time to get your life in balance and think about whether what you do enriches the lives of others. Once you have those issues resolved, recommit yourself to being the best salesperson in the area you serve.

Salespeople are the gasoline that fuels our economy and our way of life. Without us, the American engine will not run. Do your part.

Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a consulting firm specializing in sales development and training. Send comments and questions to him via fax at (724) 933-9224 or visit www.totaldevelopment.com. He can be reached by phone at (877) 933-9110.

Thursday, 29 November 2001 17:51

Carol Harris

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Conventional wisdom has it that you'd either better know something or know somebody to succeed in business. Carol Harris would ask, "What's wrong with doing both?"

The story of Carol Harris Staffing LLC is a delightful tale of entrepreneurial success because it exemplifies almost everything small business people have been taught, imagined and dreamed about.

It's a story of working hard, persevering, paying attention, learning and growing -- then knowing just when to take the leap from employee to entrepreneur.

Harris, president and CEO of Carol Harris Staffing, previously was a single mother living in Boston with her two young children, working in real estate to maintain a home life for her family.

A graduate of Penn Hills High School and the University of Pittsburgh, she decided to return home to be near her family, friends and familiar places and to build a career.

That's when she connected with Kelly Services, where she worked part time as a receptionist. There, she studied the industry, learning the staffing business from an industry leader. Within eight years, she had committed to a full-time career and progressed through the ranks of Kelly, rising to branch manager, then regional sales manager.

After eight years, in 1987, she ventured out on her own, forming Carol Harris Temporaries Inc. in Monroeville.

Mutual benefit

"It was one of those situations where the employer wanted to make a change, and I did, too," Harris says. "So I had the opportunity to basically form my own company from the organization where I had been an employee."

After sitting out a noncompete arrangement, she started her business in the Jonnet Building, where her headquarters is still situated today.

Since then,. she has opened two additional offices, in New Kensington and Youngwood, near New Stanton. The company has grown from its first office of 400 square feet to three offices totaling 6,700 square feet.

Although Harris has more than 20 full-time staff members, the true measure in the staffing business is how many workers get placed with client businesses each year. For 2000, Carol Harris Staffing issued more than 3,000 W-2 forms.

Those workers represent clerical, industrial and technical specialists, from word processing experts to chemists. Most work a 40-hour week, although some are part-timers.

Shared interests

Harris says the staffing industry is built on a mutuality of needs.

"You have to recognize that there are a surprising number of people who only want to work temporarily," she says. "There might be very obvious reasons for this, or the worker may have unusual circumstances.

"Some workers view temporary employment as a type of paid job search. Being placed temporarily with a company gives them a chance to see how they fit in there, what possibilities exist within the company, and whether they might want to work there permanently."

The benefit to the client business is simplicity. The firm pays a fee and gets a qualified worker, avoiding the costly overhead associated with recruiting, hiring, training and maintaining an employee.

Businesses like Carol Harris Staffing match workers to available work, making money from fees paid by client businesses. Only a portion of that money goes to the worker as wages.

According to Harris, "What differentiates the success, growth and reputation of one staffing company from another is the ethical behavior and the fairness it brings to both the worker and client sides of the equation. We've based our success on the ability to attract and locate only the best workers. That's how we can best serve our clients, and that's why we have long-standing relationships with a very impressive roster of clients."

The agency's highest priority is the recruitment of employees.

"We are constantly developing innovative ideas to interest employees in our company," she says. "As part of that effort, we work with technical colleges, trade schools, business schools and high schools, and our staff visits off-site locations to interview prospective employees."

Awards and rewards

In 2000, Carol Harris was named Entrepreneur Of The Year in the Service category by Ernst and Young. She was recently named one of the "50 Best Women in Business in Pennsylvania," an award presented by the governor's office, and her firm has been named one of the "100 Fastest Growing Companies in Western Pennsylvania" two years in a row.

Harris is a member of the board of Habitat For Humanity and was featured on the "Oprah Winfrey" show for donating $60,000 to build a Habitat home in the Pittsburgh area. She also sponsored a bike ride for the Allegheny Valley Habitat affiliate that raised more than $30,000 to rehabilitate a home in New Kensington. How to reach: Carol Harris, (412) 856-3666 or www.chstaffing.com

William McCloskey is a free-lance writer based in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, 29 November 2001 17:42

Mid-market medicine

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Middle-market companies in trouble because of an economic downturn or other market factors might find a new venture launched by DKW Law Group to be just what the doctor ordered.

DKW Value Recovery LLC offers interim crisis management, turnaround advisory management, bankruptcy advisory management and information technology services to troubled mid-market companies.

"DKW Value Recovery is already involved in several deals, and we are confident in the results this new entity will bring to its clients," says Leo Keevican, managing director.

A construction products manufacturer facing a downturn recently retained DKW Value Recovery, which provided an interim controller and performed an assessment and financial report of the company's engineering and manufacturing processes. The report will be used to run the operation more efficiently.

Ray Marano