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Eugene Polisseni: An executive whose roots run deep

When Eugene Polisseni talks about his “baptism by fire” in the world of computers, he lights up.
The year was 1977, the machinery ran on punch cards and Polisseni had just borrowed a van to move his wife and four children from Rochester to Cincinnati.
There he parked his family, researched the city neighborhoods, located a property to buy, signed a contract to have a home built and leased a building for the business he was launching. All in four days flat.
Moving and shaking, like fiery baptisms, cheer the Paychex Inc. marketing chief right up.
At that point in 1977, Polisseni’s career already had seen plenty of changes.
After five years in production management, he hopped off the Xerox Corp. ladder to manage a wholesale tire outfit. Xerox, he says “was a good living and a good education.” Many others would have strapped themselves in for a lifetime ride.
Polisseni did not. He was bored and frustrated.
“The top of that corporate ladder was very far away,” Polisseni recalls. “It would be a long time before anyone would ask what Gene Polisseni had to say about the destiny of Xerox.”
Managing the wholesale tire outfit, the first stop after Xerox, was better. Fun at Tire World Inc. led Polisseni to start up his own company, Eastway Tire Distributors. There he found he had everything it took to be a great entrepreneur–except enough capital.
So Polisseni went to work selling for St. Johnsbury Trucking Co. and rose from the ranks to manage its New York sales force.
On his way to the top executive ranks, Polisseni was frustrated and bored again.
That was 1977 and the start of Polisseni’s longest-running entrepreneurial venture: Paychex.
His title now is vice president of marketing. But you will not find it on his business card. Business cards at Paychex carry no titles.
And, Polisseni says, his position there carries no creative limits.
Take the human resource services division, created in 1991. Paychex processes payrolls, mostly for small businesses. So do other companies.
But Paychex’s human resource unit gives small-business owners big-business expertise in more than payroll: handbooks, hiring tools, interviewing techniques–all the expensive sophistication of corporate human resources, packaged and priced for small firms.
Other balls Polisseni tossed in the air include in-house employee training programs, telemarketing, and advertising and typesetting. While those balls spin, he is looking for new entrepreneurial opportunities for Paychex.
Polisseni is not talking about anything so common as an acquisition run or so ordinary as new product development.
“Entrepreneurship is a gut operation, not a matter of statistical analysis,” he explains. “It’s a lot more fun.”
Constant change, aggressive evolution, disruption and upset do happen to be the name of the business game these days. But even if they were not, Polisseni probably would be ripping up one pea patch or another anyway.
So why has he sat so still at Paychex for 17 years? The answer is, he hasn’t. Sat still, anyway.
“Being hung up on what worked yesterday is not a problem here,” Polisseni asserts.
After setting up the Cincinnati franchise–one of five independently owned Paychex operations–he joined in the 1979 vote to bring everything under one corporate roof, back in Rochester.
“As long as I think I can have some influence, I’ll be a part of Paychex,” Polisseni says. “When I can’t make a contribution of the type I want, that’s the day I’ll walk out the door.”
At 55, he is nowhere near the door. But, Polisseni says, he never is far from the tough times he had on the way up, either.
Back in the tire-company days, a pesky entrepreneurial type showed up at his office regularly to sell him the new idea of automated payroll processing.
Polisseni and Paychex founder Thomas Golisano were longtime friends, so Polisseni felt free to share his views about the future of automatic payrolls.
“Tom, it will never work,” he informed Golisano, then a salesman for a now-defunct early service. No way was Polisseni parting with his hard-earned life savings–$3,000–to fund his friend’s pipe dream.
Golisano did not listen. He kept badgering.
When Golisano finally persuaded him to join the fledgling Paychex as owner-operator of the Cincinnati franchise, it was Polisseni’s turn to ignore the naysayers.
Rochesterians warned him about the stodgy Cincinnatians. Germans, most of them, tough to sell, slow to take to new ideas, these skeptics said.
Polisseni sold all day and ran the Paychex computer long into the night.
When Polisseni sent out his first direct-mail promotion, wife Wanda headed the family assembly line as all four children joined in to fold, stuff envelopes, lick stamps and get the job done.
Selling in Cincinnati, Polisseni found, was no tougher than selling in Rochester. It was not the first time he found that when everybody says something, everybody can be dead wrong.
The last child of an Italian immigrant father and New York small town-bred mother, Polisseni was the first of five siblings to graduate from high school. For a time, he listened to those who told him he was not college material.
Both older brothers and both older sisters left school early to help support the family during the Depression. His brothers followed their father into the plumbing business.
Polisseni, the youngest by 14 years, did return to school, the SUNY Agricultural and Technical College at Delhi, for an associate’s degree in management and marketing.
Arriving late in his parents’ lives, Polisseni was only 5 years old when the last of his older siblings married and moved out. Age gaps left Polisseni to make his own decisions without family pressure.
Not that his father failed to make his ethical mark on Polisseni. He taught all his children the fundamentals of hard work and fair play, the Paychex executive says.
“He was a tough man. Some of his ideas of discipline were what people these days might call abuse,” Polisseni says. “I didn’t consider it abuse.”
Polisseni was a pretty tough kid, recalls childhood friend Gary Muxworthy, owner of Gary Muxworthy’s Ski Loft, a Pittsford sporting goods and patio-furniture store.
“He beat me up the first time I met him,” Muxworthy recalls.
He buddied up with the new kid on the block in Irondequoit. At age 13, they rounded up investors to equip Polisseni’s sister’s back yard as a hockey rink and formed a neighborhood league.
Big sister Eleanor Palmeri recalls those afternoons when her back yard was overrun with boys. Polisseni, she says, already showed both the leadership and the loyalty that have marked his life.
“Some of those boys are still in his life today,” she says. “He belongs to a country club because he likes to play golf, but he’d be just as happy rounding up a bunch of guys for backyard hockey.”
“Gene was always a solid guy, always knew how to get people motivated to get things done,” Muxworthy notes. “That magnetism in his personality, his way of staying calm and keeping everyone else calm, showed even then.”
In high school, Muxworthy, Polisseni and Golisano ran together. Muxworthy was later to become Paychex’s first customer.
Old friends and the camaraderie of rough-and-tumble sports have remained constants in Polisseni’s life, anchoring him through the death of his father when Polisseni was only 18.
After high school, he offered to bring the young hockey talents in the Irondequoit Recreation Association to the Rochester Lions Club for its youth program. It was a package offer–the boys were to be teamed together.
The Lions Club wanted to parcel them out to different teams. No deal, said Polisseni.
That was how the Irondequoit Hockey League came to be. Later, Polisseni was a founder of the Rochester Metro Hockey League for amateur adult players. It now has hundreds of participants.
While counting grandchildren–three, so far–Polisseni is watching his children’s careers. Daughter Valerie, a nurse in Florida, made the most recent contribution to the collection of Polisseni grandchildren only six months ago.
Gary, the oldest son, works as a sales representative while looking for a business of his own to buy. Gregory, the youngest, is a partner in a Fairport sign company.
Daughter Kim died in a car accident 12 years ago.
Polisseni says he is working harder now than he was when times were tough. But there have been some changes.
The wealth and success that often separate those who have made it from those who knew them when have done the opposite in Polisseni’s case, his sister says.
“Having more money to Gene just means having bigger family parties,” she says.
Those parties may find him crawling through crowds of cousins alongside a grandchild or cranking out homemade pasta in the kitchen. But Polisseni these days is more like the gregarious boy who whooped it up in her back yard 40 years ago than he was able to be during the hard years of struggle, his sister says.
“He never lost touch with what it’s like to start a business from scratch,” she adds.
It may be no coincidence that the source of Paychex’s success is the same kind of scrappy small outfits where Polisseni learned the ropes. The average Paychex client has only 15 employees.
And the boss who stayed his buddy through the years of changes says what is important about Polisseni has never changed.
“Gene is as down-to-earth now as he always was,” Golisano says. “He talks to everybody about everything. He respects small businesspeople and they respect him.”
Now marketing chief of one of the area’s stellar corporations, Polisseni could not be farther from the stereotype of the MBA sales barracuda ready to jack ’em up, glaze ’em over and shake ’em down. He still plays too close to his own back yard for that.

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