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The Rochester Group isn’t singing the blues

Robert Miller:
The Rochester Group isn’t singing the blues

Not every company executive uses a band of musicians as a business model.
That is fine with Robert Miller. He wants the Rochester Group Inc. to stand out.
“I think my model for a good work environment (is) the way things are in a good band,” he says. “Everybody is making a contribution. Everybody enjoys working together. You have to get a lot done, but it’s cooperative.”
Miller, 42, became president of the Rochester Group, a business process consultant and software developer, in 1993. Since then the firm has grown from eight employees and $750,000 in annual revenues to 48 employees and revenues of $4.3 million in 1998.
And the growth continues. The company has added 12 employees this year, and Miller projects reaching some 85 employees by year’s end–a 77 percent increase.
The Rochester Group plans to expand into a second office down the street from its Park Avenue headquarters. The main office is in Lindsay Manor, a stucco home built in 1921 for Alexander Lindsay, a founder of the Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Department Store.
The new office is designed to be the first of what Miller envisions as a network of offices to open nationwide over the next eight years.
As a teenager, Miller expected to play guitar for a living. He grew up in Connecticut, but his family moved to England when he was 14. After graduating from the American Community School in London, he attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1976 to 1978.
He then transferred to Pennsylvania State University to study economics. He earned his spending money doing computer work for college professors.
“My first career choice was music. My second choice was computers,” Miller says. “My goal really was to be a session musician in L.A. This was in the mid-’70s when all those people were replaced by computers. Computers did me out of my first career choice, so here I am.”
After graduating from Penn State, he came to Rochester in 1980 to work for I.P. Sharp & Associates as a business applications consultant, product development designer and programmer. That company applied a hiring philosophy that Miller adopted for the Rochester Group.
“They actually didn’t like to hire computer science majors,” he says. “They worked with businesspeople. They thought–and I think they were right–that the hard part was understanding what the customer needed, not so much understanding the computer end. We tend to hire the same way.”
The Rochester Group staff is filled with diverse backgrounds: chemists, musicians, MBAs and “a few hard-core technologist types,” Miller says.
After some three years at I.P. Sharp, Miller moved to Computer Consoles Inc., where he worked as a software engineer. His projects included developing system software for a CCI minicomputer and a data-base system for an MCI WorldCom Inc. switching system. He also worked briefly at LPA Software Inc.
In 1987, Miller began work as a contractor with the Rochester Group. The position attracted him because it give him the flexibility needed to pursue a music career.
“I was playing at the time in two bands,” he recalls. “It was a way to make a reasonable amount of money and only have to work 30 hours a week. I didn’t really start out with an entrepreneurial vision.”
Miller vacillated for years between music and computers as a career path until deciding the Rochester Group was the right spot for him.
“I did not like working in corporate America. This really was a great environment even then,” he says. “What really got me fired up about this place was the thought that you really could make money in this business doing a good job, being honest and working well together.”
While working as a contractor at the Rochester Group, he met fellow contractors Peter Tieslink and Claude Marini. They persuaded founder Robert Pullman to bring them on board as full partners in 1991.
Two years later, the trio bought the company from Pullman. They recently added the firm’s first additional employee-owner.
“It is our first step toward more employee ownership,” Miller says. “We want to stay privately held because I think the real value of this place, to our employees and our clients, is the culture.”
Until late 1997, Miller still worked extensively on projects, despite his title of president. He put in 60 to 70 billable hours a week. Now, almost none of his time is billable.
The change occurred when he and his wife, Janet, adopted a daughter. Miller chose to cut back his hours.
“I’m probably more effective for the company now than I was in 1997,” he observes.
Miller focuses his efforts on strategic issues such as forming partnerships, charting growth opportunities and creating a new marketing plan.
Last year, he led a push to introduce more formal processes into the company’s operations. The effort was aimed at ensuring the quality of its work.
“If you think about a band, you certainly have people who are all making their own contribution,” he explains. “They are all very creative, talented people. But they all agree on what song they will play, and that actually imposes a lot of structure on what they do.”
Miller is crafting a new marketing approach for the Rochester Group and building partnering relationships with other companies. The firm recently hired a director of marketing and sales, Paula Chapman, to bolster its efforts in that area.
The Millers live in the city with their 21-month-old daughter, Oksana, who was born in Russia. The couple spent more than a year and filled out reams of paperwork to complete the adoption.
At home, Miller handles the culinary chores. He has a reputation among friends as an excellent cook, but Miller is more modest.
“I am an enthusiastic cook,” he says. “I do just about all the cooking at home. I don’t get any complaints.”
Despite his onetime aspiration for a career in music, Miller now plays the guitar only occasionally.
“(Playing guitar) was always something I wanted to do seriously. It was not a hobby,” he says. “Either I was going to do this (as a career) or not. If you are going to do it well, you have to do it a lot.”
Miller remains an avid listener, however.
“I love to listen to music. I listen to it a lot,” he says. “I love the blues the most, B.B. King. (Little Feat leader) Lowell George was always a hero.”
But he may return to playing. Some of the musicians at the Rochester Group, including Miller, are considering forming a company blues band.
Miller’s office is decorated with posters that reflect his musical interests and his newest hobby: Formula 2000 race-car driving. He has completing training in Canada and is scheduled to drive in his first race June 19.
“I have always wanted to drive race cars,” he says.
His previous experience was racing go-karts. This represents a big step up. The Formula 2000 cars race at speeds up to 125 mph.
“They corner at 2 Gs–you are pressed against the side at twice your weight. You take a beating,” he says. “I love it. It is a lot of fun.”
Miller similarly enjoys the rapid pace the Rochester Group is moving at, but acknowledges that growth requires changes.
The Rochester Group ranked 60th in the 1998 Rochester Top 100 list of the area’s fastest-growing private companies. The firm targets 30 percent annual growth and aims to reach 1,500 employees and $150 million in revenues within eight years.
“That would be a pretty good size privately held consulting agency,” Miller says. The plan includes opening 30 to 50 offices around the country.
“We are just starting to look at other places to open offices,” he adds. “We will probably go where our clients take us. We are already working with people in other cities.”
He envisions a maximum of 55 employees per office.
“One of the things I vowed back when I was working in a cube was that I would never make anybody who worked for me sit in a cube, particularly without a window,” he explains.
Miller has violated his cube principle, but employees have windows. One reason for the second office is Miller’s belief that the current facility is too big.
“Anything above (55 employees) becomes impersonal,” he says. “Even moving just down the street will make that a little better. I really want people to go to work someplace where they know everybody.”
Xerox Corp. ranks as the Rochester Group’s largest client. The firm also does work for Eastman Kodak Co. and an array of smaller companies. Its chief competitors are Questra Corp. and Electronic Data Systems Corp.
“We really take on a whole project, do it here and deliver it,” Miller says. “There really aren’t that many companies (that do it). A lot of companies are trying to be in that business. It’s like playing guitar. If you are going to do it, you really have to do it.”
The Rochester Group’s core specialties fall into two areas: decision-support systems, also known as data mining, which includes understanding what is behind data and analyzing data bases; and sales-cycle systems and support.
“We are in the business of understanding business, understanding the technology and understanding the translation (between the two),” he says.
For example, one customer hired the Rochester Group to look at its system for handling ordering and shipping information. Somehow, the software was generating negative lead times–products were shipped before orders came in. The Rochester Group discovered the sales reps were finagling within the system to ensure they reached their quotas.
“It wasn’t a bug in the program,” Miller says. “People were playing games with the system. It was a people problem. I think that is more our focus.”
Henry Gottfried, vice president of the Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce Inc., has known Miller for roughly eight years. Miller serves on the Chamber board, and the Rochester Group is a Chamber partner.
“They combine business expertise with computer savvy. They hire MBAs who learn how to be programmers,” Gottfried says.
“They speak English,” he adds. “They are easier to deal with. It’s tough to deal with computer geeks.”
In addition, the Rochester Group completes complex projects on time, Gottfried says. Miller has impressed him with his ability to deliver and his professionalism.
“And he’s a fantastic cook,” Gottfried adds.
Marini, one of Miller’s partners at the Rochester Group, says the three principals divide executive duties at the firm. Marini handles administrative work and internal operations, and Tieslink directs financial analysis and infrastructure. Both also work on programming projects.
“The main thing Bob provides is the technical expertise and leadership,” Marini says. “He provides the vision.”
Non-programming responsibilities are taking up more time for all three principals, Marini says.
Of all the challenges facing the Rochester Group, Miller says, the biggest one is building awareness that all staffers are part of the firm’s marketing effort.
“We really started out as a company composed entirely of doers. Everybody was billing most of their time on project work. That’s an important part,” he says. “But everybody here needs to turn around and see themselves in a marketing sense.”
One thing Miller does not want to change is the Rochester Group’s culture. He describes it as family-like, fun and caring, balancing long hours and hard work.
“I love this place. I love the people in it,” he says. “And I think they know that. It’s my tendency to put a lot of faith and trust in people and be pretty hands-off. Over the last year or two, I have tried to learn when to interfere.”
To ensure that new employees fit the firm’s culture, each potential new hire is interviewed by two teams consisting of two employees apiece. If those teams and the management do not agree, the candidate is not hired.
“Unless there is consensus among all the people that they would be a good fit, we don’t hire them. The kind of people who want to work here don’t want to work anywhere else,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”
Most software companies look for employees with years of experience in a single area, Miller says. The Rochester Group prefers individuals with a range of experiences.
“We like to see people who have bounced around a lot technologically,” he says. “You know then that they can do the learning. The main reason business application development fails is a failure to understand the requirements.”
Prospective employees also must show a willingness to dig into a problem to find the answer–not just an interest in writing computer code.
“Clients typically will come to us if there is not enough time, not enough money or somebody else says it couldn’t be done,” Miller says. “What we have really gotten pretty good at is solving hard problems.
“Ultimately, if I can get the idea across, I would like to see us be a hard-problem think tank.”

5/28/99

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