Doing well and doing good in the world is a core belief of Susan Kochan, CEO of Brand Cool Marketing Inc. A commitment to social responsibility, a company culture that encourages mindfulness and her firm's steady revenue growth all link to her philosophy.
She founded the marketing agency more than 20 years ago as a way to have the flexibility to work and take care of her first child.
Brand Cool now can afford to be selective in which firms it works with. The agency in the last year has increased its staff by 20 percent.
In 2012, Brand Cool was ranked 15th on the Rochester Top 100 list of fastest-growing privately held companies. The list, presented by the Rochester Business Alliance and KPMG, ranks companies based on the three most recent years of revenue growth.
Kochan grew up in Albany, where her father was a sales executive for Blue Circle Cement Co. and her mother stayed home to raise three daughters. After graduating from high school, she went to SUNY College at Oswego, where she met the man who would become her husband, Michael Kochan.
She began her career in Washington, D.C., working for Nation's Business magazine and then KPMG LLP. She began consulting on the use of technology in marketing, serving clients such as NASA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Kochan moved to Rochester in 1988 when her husband accepted a position with Eastman Kodak Co. She worked for Logical Operations here for four years before having her first child and beginning the freelance work that would lead to starting her own company.
"At that time flexible work schedules for parents were not as common as they are now, so I started a freelance business so I could stay home with my son," Kochan says.
Four years later the family also welcomed baby Abigail, and soon after Kochan incorporated her business as Collaborative Communications Inc. in 1997.
In 2000, the company established ties with Web Product Realization Network Inc., a dot-com era company that ultimately filed bankruptcy.
"We didn't actually merge the business; we simply stopped serving smaller clients and co-located our business with theirs, essentially becoming an in-house agency for them," Kochan says. "This was during the dot-com bubble. I learned a number of things, but the most important lesson I learned was about how to manage rapid growth. I have no doubt it's helped Brand Cool to manage through the last three years of our extraordinary growth and expansion."
In 2004, Kochan partnered with Kathleen Muscato, who is now co-owner and chief strategy officer. They decided to rebrand the company, naming it Brand Cool.
"In the process of helping companies manage their brand, we uncover and amplify what's remarkable, enduring and admirable, or what makes the brand cool in the eyes of its customers," Kochan says.
Building a successful business took a dramatic turn after the financial crisis in 2008. The meltdown that forced many companies to tighten their budgets and lay off workers led Kochan to consider a new course.
"We didn't let go of any of our people. That was really important to me and my partner, but it was a herculean effort on the new business and the delivery side. Every new branding client involves strategy work on the front end, and it really drained us because we had so many new clients coming on board at once," Kochan says. "That caused me to do some deep looking in.
"I decided if I'm going to stay in the business I wanted our work to be committed to a better world. I got clear on the kind of work I wanted to be in, and then, once we were focused, we grew very rapidly."
It is not just the money that motivates Kochan.
"We're focused on changes that are good for everybody," Kochan explains. "We work on innovative solutions that build brands through sustainability and social impact."
Kochan and her team's dedication to social responsibility led to the decision to pursue B Corporation certification. The designation is earned by for-profit businesses that pass an assessment test proving they are dedicated to social and environmental betterment.
B Corp status
Top companies to earn the B Corp status, which is granted by the non-profit B Lab of Wayne, Pa., include Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., Patagonia Inc. and Etsy Inc. Brand Cool is the third Rochester company to earn the certification and is one of 842 in 27 countries. It is not an easy certification to get or keep, Kochan says.
"They assess all of your operation, everything from employee compensation, training, benefits and community engagement. They rate you on a scale of 200 points. You need a minimum of 80. We scored 101 points. All companies have to recertify every two years," she says.
The assessments are challenging, but Kochan appreciates the way they quantify a company's commitment to environmental and social impact. Brand Cool assesses clients' values in a similar way to ensure there is a good cultural fit for their professional relationship.
"You get so you can just tell where it lives within an organization and at what level," Kochan explains. "You'd be surprised by the companies. It's not like we're only interested in working with the Ben and Jerry's."
Many Brand Cool clients are in the fields of energy, health care and consumer goods packaging. There is a mix of corporate, government and non-proft work, Kochan says. Most of the paid client work is outside the Rochester area, except for some combination of paid and pro bono work for the Bivona Child Advocacy Center, E3 Rochester and the Children's Agenda, Kochan says.
Brand Cool is also working on a major behavior change program with the Rochester Ad Council called Organ Donor 2014.
But Brand Cool's work goes beyond marketing.
"We want to help our clients build engagement around their brand and their impact in the world," Kochan says.
Her team did that by creating waste reduction "tool kits" for on-site managers with Sodexo S.A., the 21st-largest employer in the world, she says.
"We're working with their corporate social responsibility team on their platform called a Better Tomorrow," Kochan says. "The kit is action-oriented and informative to help site managers-landscapers or food service workers-change what they're doing with waste."
The Brand Cool team pored over hundreds of pages of documentation to develop an actionable kit, Kochan explains. It is part of how her agency often acts as a consultant, investing upwards of $1 million a year overall on research for clients.
With Brand Cool's rapid growth have come challenges. The company has five positions open and while Kochan says there has been a great pool of talent here in Rochester, she is starting to recruit outside the area for specific skills.
"We're opening a West Coast office, and we're excited about the talent we're pulling," Kochan says. "Talent that is unique and easier to find outside the area will help us tackle social and environmental challenges, particularly as it relates to behavior change.
The Brand Cool staff includes 22 full-time and three part-time workers. It has grown so much that half of the team has expanded from the company headquarters on East Avenue in Brighton to the building next door.
"We're under the gun right now. Q4 is high-pressure," Kochan says. But looking at the office and the team at work, an outsider would never know it.
"There is a quality we strive to have of keeping it light, fun. It's our culture here," she says.
Preserving that culture is one of the challenges Muscato sees while she and Kochan manage the agency's continued rapid growth.
"We try not to become the big-time bosses. It's easy to stay focused on core values when there are just three or four people. But when you grow, it takes more intentionality around the culture," Muscato says.
One of the traits Muscato admires most about her partner is the ability to focus on what really matters.
"There certainly have to be business processes, and we always try to look at those, but Sue will always go beyond that and ask if they can be a touch point for a better culture," Muscato says.
The employee handbook is an example. Brand Cool employees have a version that is more in line with the mindfulness training Kochan offers them. Kochan describes mindfulness as learning to pay attention to all aspects of our experience without rejecting or attaching to anything. It is training in being fully human, she says. It is also the foundation of emotional intelligence, which is a critical skill for productive interactions with co-workers and clients, she adds.
"We rewrote the standard employee handbook. It now reads as a document that helps us all to protect the shared culture, rather than one that tries to protect the company from its employees," Muscato says.
The way the company treats employees is one of the best things about Brand Cool, says Sarah Gibson, director of client services, who oversees the team of account managers who are strategic intermediaries between client and agency. She joined the company almost two years ago and cherishes the culture.
"It's surprising and refreshing," Gibson says. "There is a pervasive honesty around everything we do ..., the good and the critical. We are honest with one another and with the clients. We don't pretend to know things we don't know."
Letting down her guard was unsettling at first, Gibson admits. But then she saw the freedom it allowed and the path it created for better client relationships.
"I think it has opened the door for all of us to be more creative. Truthfully, in a lot of agencies the culture is to pretend you know everything prematurely. But we find by being completely open and allowing the clients to do the same it's easier for our relationships. We establish deeper levels of trust," Gibson says.
The culture Gibson enjoys at Brand Cool is a direct credit to both partners, each of whom brings a different perspective, she says.
"The way that Sue has a solid focus on the whole human being is so important as to how we are fulfilled," Gibson says. "I try to apply that thinking to my client relationships, to see that they also have their own stressors and goals, things they want to do. The work we output is much better when we keep that in mind."
The mindset helps Gibson enjoy her work even more.
"When the company that you work for can make you a better person, how great is that?" Gibson asks. She takes Kochan's "whole human" teachings beyond her professional life.
"I apply my approach here to how I'm going to be a parent," she says.
Now that Kochan's children are grown and there is no rush to get back home from business trips, she can add an extra day to her itinerary when she travels, to take a hike with her husband, who is manager of e-imaging at General Code LLC, or a course on Buddhist philosophy. She did both recently while attending a B Corp conference in Boulder, Colo.
"The conference was great. We want to do business with others who are committed to the same values we are," Kochan says. "My husband joined me afterwards, and we had some time to enjoy together."
Son Zachary, 22, just finished earning a music degree from Finger Lakes Community College. Daughter Abby, 18, is taking a gap year and is involved in community service while she works for Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
Finding free time is not always easy for Kochan, but she still keeps a good balance between work and leisure, she says, by taking time for side trips during business travel and by teaching mindfulness and Buddhist practice in the community.
Her meditation has become her art, now. When she retires, she plans to go back to her past loves of watercolors, drawing and mixed media. She would also like to explore textiles.
Kochan is proud of the work her team is doing and sees the recent B Corp designation as a way to live its values.
"I would like to see more companies join us, and I think bigger companies can take a leadership role," Kochan says. "This whole movement is riding on the tails of Patagonia, Method, Ben & Jerry's. We want to be a local resource. This is an inspiring time."
Kochan believes marketing with messaging about the importance of social responsibility is not just a trend that will change with the next fashion.
"I think people's conscience and our hearts are changing. People want companies to do the right thing," Kochan says. "And taking the values piece out altogether, companies that embrace sustainability models will be far more likely to endure. Businesses have the opportunity to have a tremendous influence on the world's most challenging environmental and social challenges. Whether they're in it for cost savings, social causes, or both, we want to help."
Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Position: CEO, Brand Cool Marketing Inc.
Education: Bachelor of fine arts, SUNY College at Oswego, 1985
Family: Husband Michael Kochan; son Zachary, 22; daughter Abby, 18
Activities: Serves on the board of the Dharma Refuge and teaches mindfulness, meditation and Buddhist practice.
Quote: "I think doing well and doing good in the world are increasingly dependent on one another."
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