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Passion for mission drives non-profit’s leader

The story of Marlene Bessette’s career can be summed up nicely with a glance at her North Clinton Avenue office.

There, she has a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt hanging on a shelf above a picture of St. Andre Bessette, the Catholic saint who shares a name with her 19-year-old son.

Bessette, who worked at Xerox Corp. for 28 years, recently marked her first year as president and CEO of Catholic Family Center of the Diocese of Rochester, using her private business world expertise to help close a gaping deficit in the organization’s mental health clinic and put the entire agency back on solid footing.

Bessette, 54, also is looking forward, planning a shift in approach that will have the agency looking at the root causes of poverty in the region.

“We really believe that Catholic Family Center can be a catalyst for social change in Rochester,” she says.

The agency offers services to the poor and vulnerable, including emergency housing and shelter, substance abuse treatment, behavioral health services and refugee settlement.

The organization, which has 406 employees, reported 2013 revenue of $23.7 million.

Her path to the presidency of Catholic Family Center started with a phone call.

Bessette, who was working at Xerox, was friends with a single mother who lived in the city of Rochester. Bessette had met the woman through a church program where parishioners picked names taped to a Christmas tree to buy them gifts—a friendship blossomed from there.

The call was urgent, Bessette recalls.

“She had been renting a home and was about to be evicted,” Bessette says. “It wasn’t through any fault of her own. The owner of the home was going into foreclosure and not making mortgage payments, and the bank took over and was going to kick out the renters.”

Bessette and her husband knew they had to help, but after taking the woman around to look at houses in her price range, they were left disappointed.

“These were places you wouldn’t want your dog living,” she says. “This was a woman who was taking care of anywhere from three to eight kids at any time, looking after the children of her family members.”

So, Bessette and her husband made a bold decision—they became landlords. The pair bought a house in the city and rented to their friend, then decided to make the structure more formal. They looked into forming a non-profit organization where they would buy homes and rent to low-income residents.

Fortuitous pairing
At the same time, Bessette was looking into a program offered by Xerox where employees could take social service leave. Her husband played in a golf tournament where he was paired with Carolyn Portanova, then president and CEO of Catholic Family Center, who met with Marlene and suggested she come to meet the organization’s staff.

Bessette learned about the organization and put together a proposal of projects she could work on during her social service leave.

Xerox granted her the time off. Bessette spent her first few months working directly with homeless programs. During that time, Catholic Family Center was going through a fiscal crisis and was looking to hire an outside consultant to analyze the financial problems.

Bessette had a better idea.

“I participated in the interview process with the consultants,” she says. “None of them knew the organization and what we did, and some of them didn’t even really work with non-profits. I told the board that I could do everything they said they would do. I knew the organization and knew the background. And I could do it all for free.’’

The board agreed and Bessette went to work learning the organization “inside and out.” Bessette finished the work, but one month before she was set to return to Xerox, the agency asked if she would stay on permanently to fill an open chief operating officer position.

“It was a difficult decision,” Bessette says. “I would have to leave the job security of Xerox to come to a place where I wasn’t sure if I could make the transition.”

She went home and prayed about the decision, ultimately deciding the timing was perfect.

“I was thinking about what I should do, and it became clear that the answer was yes,” she says. “I had this intimate knowledge of the organization and what it was going through, and I didn’t want to come and work here in five years or when I was done with Xerox.”

Bessette became COO on Jan. 1, 2013, and in October of that year its president and CEO, Mark Wickham, stepped down. The board selected her as a replacement, and she took over the following Jan. 1.

Turning it around

Bessette took over as Catholic Family Center was in the midst of a financial storm. The organization showed a $1 million loss for 2012, which she notes was the result of write-offs from receivables.

“The organization was very fragile, and getting us back on track to a positive budget was key,” she says.

One of the biggest drivers of the budget deficit was the organization’s mental health clinic, she says. Like nearly all community-based mental health clinics in the state, Catholic Family Center’s operated at a continual deficit, Bessette says.

“The board said we either had to fix it or close it,” Bessette says. “We had five months to show that we could get it back on track, and we weren’t going to let it close down.”

To help the situation, Bessette turned back to the private business world where she had spent three decades.

“One of the strategies we’ve used is to bring in expert resources from the outside,” she says. “I called on my own experience and found people who are retired but want to make a difference.”

Bessette pulled together a group of eight individuals with expertise in areas including finance, human relations and business management. The group’s proficiency allowed Catholic Family Center to tackle its financial issues in an efficient and cost-effective way, she says.

Bessette put this group to work on the mental health clinic, improving its operations and making it more efficient. Some of the solutions are simple. One of the biggest problems the clinic faced was patients who missed their appointments, so Catholic Family Center is in the midst of implementing a system that sends text message reminders.

“Many of these people have phones but run out of minutes, so text messaging is the most effective way to get hold of them and help them keep track of those appointments,” she says.

The changes already put into place have brought great improvements to the clinic’s operation, Bessette says. In the first year the deficit was cut in half, and the second year it was halved again.

“We’re still operating at a loss, but it’s much smaller now,” she notes.

Leaders at the Diocese of Rochester, which oversees operations at Catholic Family Center, have praised Bessette for the work she has done combining her business world experience with a deep connection to its mission.

“Not only has Marlene successfully brought her considerable managerial talent from Xerox to improve operations at Catholic Family Center, but more importantly she’s viewed the work not as a job but as a vocation,” says Jack Balinsky, director of Diocese of Rochester Catholic Charities who served as interim CEO of Catholic Family Center after Wickham left.

Bessette’s leadership has been key to digging out of the financial hole, says P.J. Guisto, the organization’s chairman.

“It’s hard to say enough about her contributions to the organization. She’s really a godsend,” Guisto says. “She is so committed to the mission and has so much passion and energy that it’s really contagious.”

For Bessette, the mission is deeply personal. She has long been active in her own parish at the Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford, where she leads women’s retreats and works on the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program. Bessette, who lives in Pittsford, also enjoys golfing in her free time, though she says there has been less time to hit the links since taking over at Catholic Family Center.

Looking forward
With Catholic Family Center on more solid financial ground, Bessette says she is looking to make a “subtle yet profound” shift in the organization’s focus.

The organization has always worked with the region’s poor and vulnerable population, delivering services and administering programs meant to help them get back on their feet. But as Bessette notes, the agency never worked to address the root causes of poverty.

She wants to change that.

“We’re working to update the strategic plan for the first time in five years, and we’re taking a bottom-up and top-down look at everything we do,” she says. “I want us to be the best agency in Rochester that works with the poor and vulnerable.”

Since November, the organization has been working on a pilot project to help people in the city of Rochester move out of poverty. Bessette says Catholic Family Center is looking at a two-generational model, working with parents and caregivers to help them become more self-sufficient as well as with children.

Bessette has a goal of creating a demonstration project in 2015 that would address these root causes of poverty.

“There is no funding yet, but I believe in miracles,” she says.

Even without the formal funding in place, Catholic Family Center has begun working on its approach. The agency held a carnival night at Carlson Commons in the city’s Plymouth and Exchange neighborhood, offering games and pizza for children and families.

“Right now, we’re just trying to build those relationships and build our trust,” she says.

There will be more programs as the year goes in, with a focus on identifying gaps in services in the community where Catholic Family Center can offer its programs or help refer residents to other providers offering the help they need.

“The Catholic Family Center has a lot of the programs that these people need, from financial literacy to English as a second language to parenting classes. And though we don’t have everything, we can find out what the needs are and do everything we can to meet them,” she says.

Like her decision to take the position at Catholic Family Center, Bessette says moving ahead with this effort takes a deep faith in the organization.

“We’re not sure where this is going to go, but we have to start somewhere,” she says.

Much of her faith comes from the dedication of Catholic Family Center’s employees. Bessette says she leads a dedicated group of people who share her commitment to the mission. She notes the staff has a small turnover, despite just receiving their first cost of living adjustment in four years because of the organization’s financial hardships.

With the worst of these difficult times now apparently behind them and some big plans in the future, Bessette says there is great momentum surrounding Catholic Family Center.

“The organization has a whole different feel than the last few years in terms of hope for the future,” she says. “The thought that we might actually address poverty is exciting.”

Marlene Bessette
Position: President and CEO, Catholic Family Center
Age: 54
Education: B.A. in biology, the University of Rochester, 1982; MBA, Duke University, North Carolina, 1984; master’s in theology, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, May (expected)
Family: Husband, Eric; son, A.J.; daughter, Danielle
Residence: Pittsford
Activities: Golf, volunteering at her church
Quote: “The organization has a whole different feel than the last few years in terms of hope for the future. The thought that we might actually address poverty is exciting.”

3/6/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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