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Former hippie finds home in IT


President Jim Stefano now leads Synergy Global Solutions, a company he joined in 1989. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

 

Over four decades ago, Jim Stefano did not look the part of someone headed for a business career.

“I was a hippie; I went to Woodstock,” he says. “I had a motorcycle, long hair and everything else.”

He credits a high school adviser with directing him to enroll at Canisius College in Buffalo and setting him straight on a career path.

“She said, ‘You really have to go to this small Jesuit college,’ and she was absolutely right,” he says. “It was a positive in so many ways.”

Stefano runs Synergy Global Solutions Inc. in Victor, Ontario County, as the company’s president.

Growing up as a proud Buffalonian, Stefano graduated from Canisius with dual degrees in history and English in 1973. After his undergraduate years, he went straight into a graduate program at SUNY College at Buffalo and earned a master’s degree in American history. He also has completed 75 percent of the coursework toward an MBA from Canisius.

Stefano has been an employee of Synergy Global Solutions since 1989, taking over as president in 2011. CEO and founder Ray Hutch retired in February and serves as chairman. 

The company started in 1971 under the moniker Western New York Computing Systems Inc. It provides technical support services, including help desk, remote monitoring and hardware maintenance. The company directly serves clients and also indirectly helps customers through other managed service provider resellers.

The firm ranked third on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of computer companies. The company has nearly 50 local employees and 130 total staffers.

The 100 percent employee-owned company logs more than $50 million in annual revenues. It also has locations in Buffalo and Syracuse.

Roughly 90 percent of the firm’s business is based in New York. It focuses on the legal, financial, manufacturing, health care, engineering, call center/help desk, K-12 education and voice over Internet protocol markets.

Banking to IT
Local business leaders have seen Stefano’s career take off.

“A few adjectives that come to mind to describe Jim and why he has been successful are: trustworthy, genuine, passionate, intelligent and determined,” says John Milazzo Jr., chief information officer of Kodak Alaris Inc. and a friend of Stefano. “I knew (when they met), and it still holds true today, that he is a man of his word.”

“He is a contemplative individual that listens to his customers, doesn’t over-promise and always delivers,” Milazzo adds.

After college Stefano started his career at Citibank Corp. as a management trainee. He was promoted to branch manager of the firm’s largest Buffalo branch office on Delaware Avenue.

“(A) friend’s father said to me, ‘You know Jim, you’d make a great banker,’” Stefano says. “And I thought that’s not a bad career for me.”

He was transferred to Rochester where he held a variety of posts, including product marketing manager and director of customer service call center for Citibank USA’s National Student Loan Center.

Marketing interested him from the minute he started it, he says.

“Seeing the world from the customer’s point of view to me was fascinating,” he says.

One of Stefano’s roles in his time at Citibank was to help tellers understand why ATMs were necessary. Most saw the new technology as a negative addition to their branch.

“An ATM was a threat to the tellers,” Stefano says. “I could explain it’s not going to change your relationship with your customers; it’s just going to be a convenience to help your customers off hours. (I told them,) ‘You’re going to have so much information that you can focus on the customer.

“When you’re a teller, you’re told to be friendly. But the first time you cash a bad check your job’s on the line, so this is a tool that is going to reduce the risk,” he adds.

Citibank taught Stefano about the business world.

“I learned a great deal,” he says. “They took a basically history and English major and turned me onto business as a study.”

With a decade of experience at Citibank, he transitioned to Burroughs Corp., which merged with Sperry Corp. to form Unisys Corp. in 1986. He was the computing firm’s marketing representative for financial industry systems until 1989. He sold everything from check-processing equipment to ATMs to the systems the tellers and the platform managers used.

“My job was to work with companies and help them to understand how to apply technology,” he says.

Upon the recommendation of a customer, he sought out Hutch and soon his career started in a new direction.

“Ray Hutch is the original cloud, because all these credit unions, they were all in his credit center,” Stefano says. “They were in the cloud.”

Finding Synergy
He joined Synergy Global Solutions in 1989. He had lofty goals from the start.

“My goal was to be Ray’s right-hand man; that simple,” Stefano says. “I wanted to be like my father was to the owner of his business and that family that owned the business.”

Today Stefano, Hutch and the company’s employees are working on a succession strategy for the next decade. Hutch is confident of the company’s direction under Stefano’s watch, he says.

“He’s very easy to work with,” Hutch says. “He’s got a great calm personality. We actually teamed up pretty well as the years went by, because I’m more of a Type A personality but I needed somebody who was stable to maintain the support, and he fit that description.”

Moving to a small company was a welcome change for Stefano. Large corporations have different cultures, he says. While he found himself surrounded by highly talented colleagues at both large and small enterprises, he prefers the small-company environment.

“It’s frustrating working for big corporations and, frankly, big corporations—you don’t care or you develop a relationship with somebody who’s your mentor, but their jobs change and they move on,” Stefano says.

Though Stefano works for a technology company, people have been the driving force in his career. He knows that no matter what the change in the industry, interacting with people will always be crucial.

“I understood that technology is real-ly about tools,” Stefano says. “Some people in our industry get really excited about the technology for its own sake, but to me this is really a people business because technology serves people.

“At some point you need to implement it because it’s a tool and if people aren’t going to use it—well, your investment is wasted. I think with companies like Apple you see a lot of technology people but you see all of the creative people (that) are critical to that business.”

The challenge Stefano faces is predicting the future.

“Part of it is anticipating over the next three years where the business is going, where our customers want us to be. Then the other part is the people part,” Stefano says. “It’s still a challenge. For me and my career it’s seeing the next transition of this company, the succession and the development of the management that’s going to replace myself and the rest of the management team.

“That to me is a high priority,” he adds.

Family first
Priorities are simple for Stefano.

“When you’re Italian, it’s family and then it’s your village and then it’s the broader world,” Stefano says. “I apply that to almost everything. (As far as) my family—I couldn’t be more proud of mine.”

He has served on the NTID Foundation board for 17 years. The foundation board supports the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology, which educates deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The foundation has helped Stefano’s son, Matthew, who has been deaf since birth. Matthew went through the program, and getting involved in the organization has become a passion for Stefano.

To unwind, Stefano enjoys spending time with a good book. The Fairport resident spends his free time learning, mostly about history and economics.

“I always want to learn,” Stefano says. “I always enjoy learning from other people. I still find the best part of my job is learning—from the employee owners in this company, my customers—frankly, anyone. I think that’s to me one of the secrets of life: Just keep on learning and be open.”

Even his competitors want to be around him. Ken Michael, vice president of Dox Electronics Inc., has been a competitor and friend for four years.

“The guy is fantastic,” Michael says. ‘Jim is very loyal to his customers, his employees and his vendor partners—you can trust this guy. The handshake still works with Jim and it’s so rare these days.

“I can’t think of a single person who runs a better organization than Jim, and I know a lot of vendors that are out there.”

Looking back, his career path has been a mix of hard work, fate and positive relationships.

“There’s some synergy to what happened in my life,” Stefano says.

Jim Stefano
Position: President, Synergy Global Solutions Inc.
Age: 65
Education:  B.A. in history and English, Canisius College, Buffalo, 1973; M.A. in American history, SUNY College at Buffalo,1974; MBA coursework; post-graduate management seminars
Residence: Fairport
Family: Wife, Nancy; son, Matthew, 35; daughter, Anne, 33
Hobbies: Reading, running, outdoor activities and spending time with grandchildren
Quote: “Some people in our industry get really excited about the technology for its own sake, but to me this is really a people business because technology serves people.”

10/30/15 (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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