At the core of innovation is the chance to do something differently, to create something novel.
To try something that no one else is doing.
In 1987, a couple of weeks after launching the company, Lauren Dixon put an ad in the Buffalo News for a writer and photographer. Mike Schwabl answered the ad and together the duo—now spouses—set out to take what were then norms of the workplace and question them.
After some good and bad workplace experiences, they sought to create a different atmosphere at their firm, one that would not only create productive employees but a place that would help employees be empowered to thrive.
They created core values to live by—a somewhat novel idea at the time—and more importantly, they stuck to them. Those values are respect, integrity, teamwork, community, innovation and fun.
Now Dixon Schwabl is celebrating 30 years of operation as a full-service advertising, public relations and digital media agency.
The national conversation on culture happening today was not happening back then, Dixon says.
“Even back then culture was super important to us and our core values—we established those day one,” she said. “Nobody was talking about core values. I don’t even think we really knew what we were doing, candidly. All we knew was that we wanted to go to work every single day and have fun and respect the people we work with and not have any of the drama in the workplace.”
The values are the same but have some outgrowth, Schwabl says.
“The interesting thing about our values is the base values are the same since 30 years ago but our team has really helped evolve our values,” he said. “It’s really our team, it’s not just Lauren and I, everyone at Dixon Schwabl creates this culture because we want it to be a fun place; we all want to contribute.”
That innovative approach to business has worked.
Dixon Schwabl has grown at an unrelenting pace over the past three years. In 2014 revenues were $50 million; by 2015 they grew to $71.3 million and last year the firm logged $76 million in revenues.
The firm expects to grow revenues by 12 percent this year. Today the company employs over 120 people. The firm is based at 1595 Moseley Road in Perinton.
The full-service marketing and communications firm ranked fourth on 2016’s Rochester Top 100 list.
Ten years into the business the company experienced a large setback. The roof of their building collapsed, a drawback that could have caused the firm to close as the company lost everything.
At the time Dixon Schwabl employed roughly 20 people—all of whom rallied behind the firm to rebuild. The company had just won business from a small phone company: Citizens Communications Co.—what is now is Frontier Communications Corp.
Today the Frontier account is a large part of the firm’s business. There are a total of 35 full-time team members working on the account.
“That was a mighty stressful year, but I will tell you 20 years later it was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Dixon says. “The team that was in place then are with us today…there is a bond that was created that will never be broken. We have each other’s back like you can’t even believe and I feel that’s true with everybody else, but there’s a special connection with those people because that was a very difficult time to live through.”
The 10th year also brought a change in focus, moving from a boutique-style agency to a fully integrated, full-service firm which meant bringing all offerings in-house including video production, public relations, media buying, digital and social media.
Dixon Schwabl went the integrated way while others were doing the opposite.
“At year 10 we decided that we were going to go for the gusto and build the company and not be as boutique-oriented,” Dixon said. “As other agencies were specializing in xyz we decided to create a totally integrated account because many of our clients were saying we don’t have time to manage eight relationships.
One of the things that we got really excited about was we could build everything internally and there would be greater speed to market,” she added.
As leaders, Dixon and Schwabl modeled the way for employees.
“I think in the earlier days I think one of the things that we did was we led by example because Lauren and I were doing a lot of the work,” Schwabl said. “And nowadays—I mean we’re still working hard, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not doing as much of the work. Our time is more concentrated on leading people and making sure that we take the obstacles out of their way so they can do their business. In the early days we led by example; we worked hard and the team followed.”
Much of the company’s growth in recent years has been from the team’s digital department, reflecting the changes of industry. Today everything is faster and more malleable thanks to digital.
Today nearly 20 people are part of the firm’s digital department.
“I think the most exciting thing for us today is how the business has evolved,” Dixon said. “It used to be super easy: radio, television, print, magazine, billboard, and direct mail and today it’s not that easy. There are so many different ways to really target very specific markets and in ways where there is very little waste. From the client perspective it is truly amazing because every dollar matters.”
Today companies can directly speak to the people and audience that actually want to hear what they have to say, Schwabl says.
“This is such an exciting time for us because we’ve always been storytellers, and that’s what we’ll always be, but now we have mediums that instead of just telling the story to everybody, now we can direct it at people who really want to hear that story when they’re looking for it,” he said. “It’s been fun to watch the team develop the future of marketing.”
Over the three decades of operation, Dixon and Schwabl have learned to get out of the way of great people. The leaders have let employees figure out the best paths forward.
“I really think trust your people, give them the freedom and the responsibility to do their job and let them do it,” Schwabl said. “It makes your job as a leader easier. It gives them more satisfaction in what they do; everybody wins and it’s fun to come to work.”
Adds Dixon: “We allowed people to think big and to come to us with their ideas and take a step back and allow them to implement big ideas; it was so liberating not to have that responsibility as my responsibility or Mike’s responsibility. There’s no better job satisfaction at the end of the day if you’re the creator of the idea and the implementer and then you get to see the end result.”
This year the firm has added a department focused on helping other companies create great workplace cultures based on a “Companies Are People Too” program.
The program is named “Companies Are People Too” based on a book with the same title that was written by Sandra Fekete. Dixon Schwabl is the only national facilitator licensed to use the program. Fekete is not involved in the program Dixon Schwabl is offering.
The program helps companies connect the dots between culture, employees, and the company as a whole, Dixon says.
“It’s kind of an easy thing to do because people who are interested in creating a great place to work want to know how to do it and we’re proof positive that it can work,” she said. “They (other companies) can’t copy our culture; they’ve got to figure out internally who they are, what they stand for and develop their own value and then figure out what those behaviors are against those values.”
The offering is available to current clients now, with plans to integrate and expand the program before the end of the year as a division of the company.
“Most of the advice I give other leaders is to lead by example,” Dixon said. “And create an awesome workplace because that to me is the secret sauce of a successful organization. When you do have a great culture there is no drama or very little drama and you’re more productive and then you’re more profitable and that’s what every business owner—every leader—really wants at the end of the day.”
The company has long-standing clients like Roberts Wesleyan College, and a relationship that has been sustained for all 30 years of the business. The college was the firm’s second account.
Deana Porterfield, current president of Roberts Wesleyan College, has been in the role for the past three years. Seeing what Dixon Schwabl has done for the college in the past and in the present has been eye-opening, she said.
“I love working with them,” Porterfield said. “Every time we have initiated a project or needed assistance in some area related to marketing or media they have always been professional and honestly just the top of the line. I have been in higher education now for amazing to say almost 30 years myself and have worked with many marketing firms and there is something special about Dixon Schwabl.”
Dixon Schwabl helped Roberts Wesleyan College rebrand. The college needed a way to marry its past with its future with an image.
“We chose Dixon Schwabl for that and the work was honestly very transformational for us; it really elevated us to a new place,” Porterfield said. “I definitely believe part of their success is the excellence of work that they do. They are very thorough; they don’t assume or make any assumption about where it is that you want to head. They absolutely care about the client.”
Jeff Babinski, executive vice president and general manager at del Lago Resort & Casino, started working with Dixon Schwabl last January to help with the opening of the resort and casino.
“Dixon Schwabl is a true partner driven by innovation, great work and a strong workplace culture,” he said. “At del Lago Resort & Casino we also work hard to ensure we have a strong culture that values our people and working with Dixon Schwabl has been the ideal partner that mirrors our values. The team at Dixon Schwabl is also incredibly passionate and dedicated, always going above and beyond to get the job done—they truly are an extension of our team.”
Kellie Adami has been an employee of Dixon Schwabl for the past 22 years. Today she serves as managing partner of client relations for the company.
“What’s really been apparent is that the strength of our culture just gets stronger as we grow,” she said. “Where you may assume that the culture will suffer or become diluted it’s become very strong. I think that is absolutely our secret to success is just really paying attention to the culture.
“I feel that the fact that we’ve been able to stay successful through this growth and reach the 30-year milestone says a lot for our future,” she added.
Employees are able to bring their whole selves to work, Adami says. When an employee has a difficult life situation occurring, the company is a support system.
“What has made it so successful for us is that there’s transparency and autonomy and lots of support so people can make decisions and if they’re right or wrong they’re still supported,” Adami said. “So it really allows them to do good work and it’s gratifying because you feel like you’re making a difference. I think that’s a key point to me…really it’s that sense of autonomy and not being afraid to make decisions. This company rallies behind their employees like a family would.”
Despite achieving success, Adami credits an introspective outlook and constant desire to innovate for creating consistent growth.
“It’s our willingness to look inward and see how we can improve, whether it’s getting feedback from our employees (and) getting feedback from our clients,” she said. “We could say we’ve been successful, we don’t need to change anything, but we are constantly looking at how can we improve the culture, how can we improve our service offerings, (and) how can we improve our relationships with our clients.”
Being in Rochester has not only been good for business but it has helped the firm keep its community-focused mindset. Giving is what Rochester is all about and has been about for years, Dixon says.
“It just really impresses me every single day that our business leaders just go above and beyond every minute of every day and it just inspires you to want to do more,” she said.
Adds Schwabl: “We made it to 30 years in a large part because of our community and the support that they’ve given us.”
The milestone is a way to pause and take in the firm’s changes, Dixon says.
“I can’t believe how fast it has gone and the changes that have occurred in the last five years have probably been more than in the previous 25 combined,” she said. “We have the greatest number of team members today and it’s the best team we’ve ever had in terms of culture fit and the ability to be great brand ambassadors.
“I truly feel very lucky and blessed because this is the time that I take a big deep breath and thank my lucky stars everyday as I’m driving to work. I am more passionate about this place today than I ever have been,” she added.
The small things have paid off. And the small things matter, Schwabl says.
“I’ve learned there’s incredible power in ice cream,” he said. “The little things that you do for your team members they’ll repay them a thousand fold, so again if one message to come out of our 30 years is culture really does matter.”
The company is in year 12 of a 15-year succession process. Dixon and Schwabl will eventually step down as leaders but will remain in the business in other roles.
Culture has been the blueprint for each decision at Dixon Schwabl. Viewing business, employees, and potential clients through that filter has helped the firm remain steady in a business that does not sit still.
“We wanted to just deliver unbelievable customer service and really have a very unique culture but a small one,” Dixon said.
The employees have made the company succeed, Schwabl says.
“What’s really nice and exciting is that our growth isn’t just spurred by Lauren and I; it’s really spurred by our team,” he said. “We’ve given them a canvas to do what they want. We certainly didn’t have any master plan.
“After 30 years I’m very glad that I answered Lauren’s ad in the paper,” he added.
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