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Embracing change prompts new ideas, can-do attitude

A blizzard barreling into Rochester and stranding scores of motorists caused utter havoc at Victor-based Dixon Schwabl Inc. in 1999, when the roof collapsed shortly after employees had left for the day.

What little the collapse spared, the sprinkler system ruined, save for one computer server and a few light fixtures that company leaders retrieved by crawling through the snow and debris.

Sitting on the floor in an unfurnished temporary office the following week, the advertising and public relations firm’s then-24 staffers began planning how to reproduce TV and radio commercials, direct-mail samples and other materials lost in the incident. That meant putting in 16-hour days.

“As I reflect back on that, I remember being in Wegmans at 3 o’clock in the morning, buying a Mr. Coffee coffee machine, No. 2 pencils, legal-size notebooks—just the very basics of what one would purchase to start a business all over again,” says Lauren Dixon, CEO of Dixon Schwabl.

Embracing change has helped Dixon Schwabl, ranked No. 7 on the 2014 Best Small Workplaces list published by Fortune magazine, and other local employers honored for their work environments tackle whatever comes their way. Dwelling on the past would lead to organizational paralysis that these high-flying companies simply cannot afford.

Operating from an office only half as large as its damaged headquarters turned out to be a boon for Dixon Schwabl, which currently has more than 200 clients.

“It was like a sorority or fraternity because people were (working) side by side,” which sparked collaboration and brainstorming, Dixon says.

Founded in 1987 when Dixon had only $22.11 in her checking account, Dixon Schwabl ranked fifth on Advertising Age’s 2014 list of 40 Best Places to Work. The company projected its revenues would reach $50 million by the end of last year—up from $30 million in 2013. Clients over the years have ranged from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to PGA of America.

In 2002, Dixon Schwabl moved into its current headquarters in Victor, now widely known for whimsical design features such as a spiral slide that leads from an upper floor to the office lobby. Though the roof collapse at the former location could have flattened the company for good, Dixon says she is grateful for the bond it created among her employees.

“We learned resiliency; we learned tenacity,” she says. “We learned that we were going to have each other’s back.”

Other local employers lauded for their workplace cultures have faced more gradual, but equally important, changes. At Nixon Peabody LLP, evolving work styles prompted launching a pilot program last fall that has a team of legal secretaries based in Rochester and on the West Coast providing administrative support to 70 early-career associates across the country.

“And these (associates) are the folks who kind of grew up at the keyboard; they grew up with technology in their hand,” says Mary McGuire, chief administrative officer at Nixon Peabody. “They really work differently.”

Unlike a pooled resource, the model hinges on the legal secretaries getting to know the associates, their support needs and their clients, McGuire says.

“The benefit of the team being co-located is largely that they can leverage each other’s skills, and we can begin to become more efficient with the production aspects of the work, and they can team in a whole different way,” she adds.

Created in a 1999 merger of Rochester-based Nixon, Hargrave, Devans and Doyle LLP and Boston-based Peabody & Brown, Nixon Peabody has more than 90 lawyers at the Rochester office.

The firm has earned various workplace distinctions in recent years, including a 100 percent rating on the 2015 Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, a national benchmarking tool that evaluates corporate policies and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.

Younger, tech-savvy attorneys want the flexibility to work anytime, so instant messaging, video conferencing and document-sharing tools figure into how they interact with the firm’s support team.

Though the model is still in its pilot phase, and a timeline has not been set to implement it permanently, “overall, I’d say we’re quite pleased right now” with the results, McGuire says.

Rapid growth has prompted Fairport-based First American Equipment Finance to embrace change by implementing an aggressive hiring plan. Roughly 40 new hires have come from local colleges and universities in the past two years.

“We hire more for ambition and potential than anything else and do our best (to) have a company that’s a group of people that want to accomplish great things,” CEO Alan Sikora says.

“We’ve found that there’s a substantial (recent graduate) population that has family ties to the area, has lived in the area and is committed to staying (here).”

Serving corporate and non-profit clients in all 50 states, First American Equipment Finance, dba of First American Commercial Bancorp Inc., is a wholly owned subsidiary of Los Angeles-based City National Bank, a business bank with more than $32 billion in assets.

The Best Companies to Work for in New York—a partnership of the New York State Society for Human Resource Management, Best Companies Group, the Business Council of New York State Inc. and Journal Multimedia Corp.—ranked First American Equipment Finance No. 2 on its 2015 list of small and medium employers. The most recent Great Rated! People’s Picks: 20 Great Workplaces in Financial Services list by GreatRated.com and Fortune.com ranked the company third in its category.

Personnel matters also prompted HR Works Inc. to take on change when a senior vice president announced she would retire last year and the presumed successor, who did not know he was in line for the position, revealed he planned to move out of state.

When an open-interview process, geared toward any employee interested in a management position, was proposed, a few senior staffers at the outsourcing and consulting-service firm expressed skepticism. That gave way, however, to everyone participating wholeheartedly.

“And what we found out in the course of the process was that we were able to identify some employees who were able to take on more responsibility,” says Shannon Craig, vice president of compliance services at the firm, which ranked No. 1 on the 2015 Best Companies to Work for in New York small and medium employer list.

Participants in the open interview “were asked not to feel restricted by the management roles that were currently in existence within the organization,” Craig says. “So they really had kind of a clean slate to craft any position that they felt might be a fit for both them and the company.

“What we found was that people were really appreciative of being able to give their feedback and ideas,” she adds. “And even those who may not be a fit for management positions, we were able to then use that as the opening to a development conversation with them and help align their skill sets with what the company really needed in a way that was going to be a better match for the long term.”

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

7/3/15 (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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