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A business strategy based on integrity

Robert Tobin:
A business strategy based on integrity

Robert Tobin is back where he started 11 years ago–working from a home office. Except now he directs a $9.4 million company, and works there to free office space at Tobin & Associates Inc.’s headquarters.
Tobin, president and CEO, started the flexible-technology-staffing business in 1987 with a computer in the bedroom and the dining-room table as his conference facility. Tobin & Associates now employs 150 people in its two divisions.
The home-based corporate life suits Tobin, 48, just fine. He goes to the office when necessary, but communicates by phone, fax and e-mail the rest of the time –a telecommuting CEO.
“I have never really had a very structured workday and I like it that way,” he says. “I like the excitement in my job. I like the risk taking that is required in any small company.”
Tobin & Associates’ revenues last year jumped 65 percent from $5.7 million in 1996. Employment rose 58 percent from 95 in 1996 to 150.
“In the last two years we have grown significantly, nearly doubled,” he says.
Tobin’s achievements earned him the 1997 Small Business Person of the Year from the Small Business Council of the Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce Inc. The firm’s clients include Corning Inc., Danka Business Systems PLC, Eastman Kodak Co., Electronic Data Services Corp. and Xerox Corp.
Tobin is not the company’s technology guru.
“I know enough to be dangerous,” he says with a laugh. “They try to keep me away from programming.
“I still like to sell,” he adds. “Doing administration is not the high point of my day.”
Many administrative chores have been passed to other company officers. That allows Tobin to focus on “relationship building” and serve as “keeper of the culture.” He enforces a corporate philosophy of integrity, openness and honesty.
“Our biggest advantage is we try to maintain a high-level integrity here,” Tobin says. “It is part of our corporate culture. It applies to everything we do.
“I strongly believe in (it). Everyone who works here needs to believe in it.”
Thomas Kelly, a friend since high school, is Tobin’s former partner at Tobin & Associates and remains on the board.
“I met him when he left the seminary; he had been planning to be a priest,” Kelly recalls. “He came to Cardinal Mooney (High School) and we became instant friends and have been since. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have a friend like Bob.”
The New Jersey resident says Tobin’s integrity explains the firm’s success.
“I think the whole reason he is successful is people trust him,” Kelly says. “He makes a promise and delivers. Sometimes we would lose money on a project, but he always does what is right.”
Tobin & Associates handles all information-systems contract outsourcing for Danka in Monroe County. The relationship began a decade ago with Kodak, and has expanded under Danka, says John Gantert, Danka’s director of North American applications.
As the lead company for technology outsourcing at Danka, Tobin & Associates relies on employees from competitors to fill specific needs. Competitors would balk at this arrangement if not for Tobin’s reputation, Gantert says.
“Bob is one of the most honest people in Rochester. And it is a tough industry,” he says.
Tobin has refused to hire away competitors’ employees working on the Danka account.
“He just won’t do it,” Gantert says. “If he did, they wouldn’t trust him (anymore).”
Raymond Martino, president of the Small Business Council and principal at Martino Flynn LLC, remembers being surprised when he first met Tobin. His personality and demeanor are not what you expect from a successful, hard-driving entrepreneur or salesperson.
“Bob is an extremely likable guy. He is easygoing,” Martino says. “He has a quiet confidence he exudes.”
That unflappability flows from Tobin on the golf course, in meetings and in business, he adds.
Tobin treats his employees like family and inspires them, says Martino, who notes that most nominations for the SBC’s small-businessperson award come from bankers or other business associates.
“Unknown to Bob, a group of his employees nominated him. It says a lot (about him),” Martino says. “He has an endearing personality. People like him. (He) makes them feel good.”
Tobin did not plan to run a business or even work in one. He graduated in 1971 from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
“I was not inclined to go into business,” he recalls. “It was a time of great social upheaval.”
Tobin wanted to do social work, but faced a tight job market.
He accepted a position with Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. as an insurance adjuster. Shortly after he enrolled in the training program, Monroe County called with a job in his field.
“I had already committed to (Liberty Mutual) and I was not going to walk away,” he says.
Tobin never returned to social work as a career. Instead, he focused his career on sales–first in insurance and then flexible technology staffing.
He worked for Liberty Mutual for two years before moving to Johns Eastern. His insurance career took him to Baltimore; Sarasota, Fla.; and Washington, D.C.
In 1980, he took a job as branch manager in Washington. He commuted from Rochester for nine months.
In 1981, he accepted a marketing representative position with the Computer Task Group. He stayed there until July 1986, leaving as national account manager.
Tobin spent a short time at two different companies, one selling software and the other a flexible-staffing firm.
“I made two really dumb career decisions,” he says. In July 1987, he found himself unemployed.
“I decided to start my company,” Tobin says. “I thought there were some things we could do differently as far as the relationship between the company and the employees.”
He introduced some new philosophies to the local flexible-staffing industry: paying employees a percentage of their billing; telling them their billing rate; and not requiring them to sign restrictive employment contracts. Today, he shares the firm’s financial records with employees and conducts regular brainstorming sessions to improve the business.
“I hope we have a balance between work and other parts of people’s lives,” he says. “We want to make it fun, minimize bureaucracy, and I want people to want to come into work.”
Tobin says the flexible-technology-staffing industry has changed tremendously since 1987. Consolidation has occurred, along with increased competition and more of it coming from non-local firms.
“You always have small windows of opportunity, and you have to decide whether to go through them or not,” he says. “Back when I started the company I had a very small window. If I had waited, … I probably would not have had the opportunity.”
He and his wife, Patricia, launched the business and a short time later brought Kelly on board as a financial partner. Patricia Tobin remains involved with the firm, participating in corporate decisions and working on small projects.
The Tobins live in Penfield. They have four children: Dawn, 24, an employee at Tobin & Associates; Joseph, 21; Anna, 14; and Emily, 9.
While many owners of fast-growing, entrepreneurial companies find little time for non-work activities, Tobin calls such activities critical for both himself and his employees. He ranks keeping that balance in his life as one of his top accomplishments.
“Achieving a balance between work and other things I like doing outside of work is important,” he says. His activities range from leading youth groups and participating in community activities, to sports and reading.
Since 1982, he has coached Catholic Youth Organization girls’ seventh- and eighth-grade basketball. His teams, based at St. Joseph’s Church in Penfield, have included daughters Dawn and Anna.
“I enjoy spending time with my kids,” he says.
A voracious reader, Tobin works his way through lists of highly rated fiction and non-fiction with an occasional diversion of a business book or a murder mystery.
His athletic interests extend beyond coaching basketball to local professional sports. He attends all the Rochester Knighthawks indoor lacrosse games and many Rochester Red Wings games.
“I enjoy all sports,” he says. He played basketball recreationally until three years ago, and continues to play golf.
His community activities include donating time to various non-profit and business organizations. He is president-elect of the Small Business Council, a board member of the Rochester Rehabilitation Center Inc., vice president of Prevention Partners Inc. and a member of the parish council advisory committee at St. Joseph’s.
He also is active in Rochester Rehabilitation’s Information Technology Training, a retraining program for disabled and underprivileged workers. He received the Empire State Employer Recognition Award for his work to provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
Tobin co-founded the Penfield Community Partnership Project, instrumental in a variety of drug-free and alcohol-free activities. He also was named the Penfield Lions Club’s Citizen of the Year in 1997. He teaches business skills to fifth-grade students throughout the city through Junior Achievement of Rochester, New York Area Inc.
“A lot of it has to do with having roots in the community,” says Tobin, who grew up in the city’s 19th Ward.
He plans to promote doing business locally when he becomes president of the Small Business Council.
“I would like to see big companies in town doing more business with other companies in town,” he says.
Kelly describes Tobin as completely dedicated to Rochester. “He is one of the best ambassadors Rochester has ever had.”
Tobin & Associates has expanded from its original mission as a flexible-staffing firm, adding a second division: systems and services.
The flexible-staffing division remains focused in Rochester and Corning.
“(Clients) may not have the right number of people to complete a project, may not have the right skills or may just have a peak demand,” he says. Those firms contact flexible-staffing providers such as Tobin & Associates to help them through the crunch times.
Flexible staffing remains the bulk of the business, with 130 of the 150 employees dedicated to it. Systems and services accounted for some $1 million of the firm’s $9.4 million in 1997 sales.
“The flexible-staffing industry is very strong right now,” Tobin says. “There is an extreme shortage of qualified information-technology people.”
Tobin & Associates found that a growing number of clients wanted it to share in the risk of software development. That prompted the launch of the systems and services division, which takes responsibility for entire projects, start to finish.
The division focuses nationally on mobile and network computing; client-server work; and business re-engineering in manufacturing, distribution and warehousing. Its niche is automated data collection, helping companies bring automated technologies to the workplace.
Tobin cites two factors in explaining the firm’s growth: strong demand in the marketplace and an 11-year track record. He projects another 20 percent surge in 1998, reaching 180 employees and $10.8 million in revenues.
Some growth will come from the firm’s planned expansion into Florida and either North Carolina or Massachusetts by midyear.
Tobin finds himself competing increasingly against firms with national resources.
“The last couple of years there has been a tremendous consolidation in the industry,” he notes. “All the companies that were local competitors here when I started have been bought out. We are one of the last ones that are locally based.”
Tobin has resisted, but not eluded, the consolidation pressure.
“I get probably an inquiry a month,” he says. “You have to look at it, but there is nothing I have been excited about yet.”
Tobin says staying Rochester-based allows the firm to make decisions locally. In addition, the money that a parent corporation would draw away instead goes to employees. And some people like to do business with a local company.
Last year, Tobin & Associates completed its first acquisition. It bought part of the flexible-staffing business of Datamax Corp., a deal that added 25 employees.
Tobin’s near-future strategic decisions involve finding a new facility.
“We are at the saturation point,” he says. More space would allow further growth–and might bring Tobin back to the office full time.


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