The 27th Rochester Top 100 luncheon is expected to be the last for Sandra Parker as president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc., an organization she has led since January 2005. She previously was president and chief operating officer after the RBA was formed in January 2003 with the consolidation of the Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce Inc. and the Industrial Management Council of Rochester, New York, Inc.
Parker was president of the IMC. The Chamber of Commerce and KPMG LLP had co-sponsored the Top 100 since it started in 1987. The RBA has co-sponsored the Top100 since being formed.
In May, Parker announced her plan to retire from the RBA. She cited as reasons her marriage to Rochester business executive John "Dutch" Summers-the two celebrated their first anniversary last month-and the strength of the RBA, both fiscally and in public influence. On Oct. 21, she said she would delay her retirement until sometime in 2014.
In a September interview with the Rochester Business Journal, Parker discussed the growth and prominence of the Rochester Top 100 and reflected on her upcoming retirement. An edited transcript follows:
THE EARLY DAYS
ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: What do you remember about the dawn of the Top 100?
SANDRA PARKER: I went to work at the Industrial Management Council in 1990. I wasn't involved in it at that point; it was a chamber function. It's an event that happens not just in Rochester. KPMG is a co-sponsor of the event. It's done in other cities under the KPMG banner. But they have said that Rochester actually has the biggest celebration of the Top 100, over any of the other cities that sponsor something like this.
RBJ: What was the local reaction to the Top 100 in its early years?
PARKER: I attended the luncheon but really didn't have an appreciation for how significant it was. Back in the 1980s, we were still kind of in the heyday of Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb, the big manufacturers. So you really didn't have an appreciation of how important some of these smaller, privately held companies really are to our overall economy.
So I attended the luncheon. It was always a grand event. It was never as big as it is now. It was just another community event, like the Civic Award. The chamber recognized an outstanding community citizen. The Top 100 was a luncheon. Now it is the biggest event the convention center hosts.
I remember it as always just a good community event, something nice to attend. But I think now it has grown to be the celebration for business in the community. It amazes me just how excited the companies get when they're on the list. We've had all kinds of folks asking us if they've made the list and where are they on the list. Of course, we're not sharing any of that with them right now. But it really is important to them.
RBJ: Why do you think that is?
PARKER: It is a recognition of high achievement. I think the folks who are the leaders in the company want to celebrate that. But the thing that's more exciting is the fact that they want to celebrate it with their employees, who helped make it happen.
Probably one of the most memorable events with the Top 100 was when SenDEC was No. 1 in 2010. They had been No. 2 and No. 3, and then finally they got to be No. 1. (SenDEC CEO Kenton Fiske) had told me the year before that if he got to be No. 1 he was going to shut the plant down and bring every one of his employees. And he did-240 people. He hired buses and brought them in.
It's just become a great celebration. The other thing is, you look back on 2008 and 2009, which were pretty gloomy times here, and that luncheon still sold out. People were still celebrating, even though it was really kind of a negative time, particularly for businesses in this area.
RBJ: Do you think the Top 100 has a tangible impact on companies and the way they do business?
PARKER: Yeah, I do. It puts a spotlight on them, No. 1. It advertises to a broad base in the community. A lot of these companies are really relatively small. But it advertises what they do, and their products, to a broad base in the community. So they're probably able to market themselves a lot more.
They get featured in the newspaper, which is something they normally wouldn't get. And companies that sponsor the event-we have a number of companies that sponsor the event-do that because they want their name on the banner as well, so that they can be shown to the Top 100 companies with the products and services that they offer. It's almost a way to exchange business cards.
CHANGES TO MAKEUP
RBJ: Has the makeup of the Top 100 changed over the years, in terms of size or sectors?
PARKER: The areas that have probably grown are the business services area and the financial services. Manufacturing has always stayed pretty active, though, which I think is telling for our region, particularly in light of what's happening with manufacturing.
If you look at it even this year, there are 18 manufacturing companies that are part of the Top 100. The largest sector is business service companies. The mix has probably stayed pretty much the same, and I've been pleased that manufacturing has continued to have a spot on that list.
Certainly, health care companies-not hospitals, not nursing homes or any of those-are in that loop.
RBJ: What is the state of manufacturing in the Rochester area?
PARKER: It's stronger than in other parts of the country, I think. It's a changed manufacturing. It's smaller companies. It's not the assembly line production work anymore. It's much more technical. It requires a lot more skill. But there are still a lot of strong manufacturing firms here.
RBJ: What trends do you see as you look at the Top 100 in recent years?
PARKER: I really think it has stayed pretty consistent. The only thing I think you see is in the very top layers. The top 10 companies tend to be smaller companies.
RBJ: What are your responsibilities with the Top 100 program?
PARKER: The RBA is responsible for getting the applications. We start advertising that if you want to submit an application, get it in. KPMG does the evaluation and the selection, based on the criteria for the Top 100. They let us know that. We then notify the top three early on so they can be prepared for you guys to go out and talk to them. Then we put the event on, which is a huge endeavor. There are going to be 2,000 people at that luncheon.
RBJ: What goes into those preparations?
PARKER: We have a young lady here, Susan George, who handles most of our events, and she has this thing down to such a process. We know we want it done in an hour and a half. We want to have time for videos. We want to have time for networking. She just cracks the whip and has such a process down that she does it beautifully.
Having it at the convention center is an asset to all of us, because Joe Floreano and his staff are terrific. For any organization to be able to put on a luncheon like that for 2,000 people is outstanding. They're terrific to work with.
RBJ: Was there a time during the last 27 years when the Top 100 transformed to a headline event rather than an awards luncheon?
PARKER: Attendance has stayed in the 2,000 range probably for the last five years. There was one year that it bumped up to 2,200. It was probably because that one company brought 240 people.
During 2008 and 2009, we saw a decrease in the number of applications. And we expected that. But we still had more than 100 applications. We've always had more than 100 applications, which has been good.
RBJ: How will the Top 100 program look in future years?
PARKER: I think the Top 100 will become even more important to this community because of the nature of the companies that make that up. You don't have to be (an RBA) member to be in the Top 100, so we use that as a vehicle to get new members.
One of the things we do every year is, for companies that are in the Top 100 that aren't (RBA) members, we give them a year's membership, and throughout that year we try to work with them to show value to chamber membership. It's a marketing opportunity for us as well.
RBJ: Was SenDEC's celebration the most memorable moment for you and your involvement with the Top 100?
PARKER: Yes. Kenton Fiske was so emotional and so proud of what his employees had done. He really was the epitome of a company that had done really well, and he was a very humble man. I think that was just terrific.
RBJ: Was there a converse moment to that? For instance, was there a year when you worried about the preparations?
PARKER: We've always been ready for it. I was a little worried two years ago. It was the 25th anniversary, so we decided to do an evening event. I was nervous about that. I wasn't sure that we would pull it off with the same result.
Having people come at night is different than having a luncheon. But, again, it was because of what the event was and what it was celebrating that made it a success.
It was much more formal. It was a dinner. We had wine with it. But it was still a great celebration of the Top 100 companies. It is our annual meeting, but in a lot of ways the fact that we're celebrating these companies overshadows the fact that it's the RBA's annual meeting as well. It fulfills two obligations.
I'm glad we don't have speakers at it. We want to give just the headlines, the companies that are being recognized.
RBJ: What's going through your mind as you prepare for your final Rochester Top 100 luncheon as president and CEO of the RBA?
PARKER: It's my last Top 100 and my last annual meeting. It's kind of bittersweet for me. These last few months are ... It's not going to be an easy time for me. I've been doing this for so long, and I really have enjoyed it.
RBJ: How do you feel as your retirement from the RBA approaches?
PARKER: When I announced it, I went home that night and said to Dutch, "I hope I don't wake up tomorrow morning and say, 'What have I done?'" And I absolutely haven't done that. I absolutely have no regrets. It is the right time.
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