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Candid Conversation: Tom Bonadio and Nadine General

Forty Under 40 winner Nadine General, vice president of agency nonprofit services for Dixon Schwabl, interviews ICON Honors winner Tom Bonadio, founder, manager partner and CEO of The Bonadio Group. (Bennett Loudon)

Forty Under 40 winner Nadine General, vice president of agency nonprofit services for Dixon Schwabl, interviews ICON Honors winner Tom Bonadio, founder, manager partner and CEO of The Bonadio Group. (Bennett Loudon)

The Rochester Business Journal has honored business people of all age groups through its many awards programs. This candid conversation provides the opportunity for a recent Forty Under 40 winner to talk to a recent ICON Honors award winner about their career and what advice they have for young professionals.

Nadine General is vice president of agency nonprofit services for Dixon Schwabl. She received the RBJ’s Forty Under 40 award in 2017.

Tom Bonadio is the founder, manager partner and CEO of The Bonadio Group. He received the RBJ’s ICON Honors award in 2017.

We gave Nadine free reign to ask Tom about whatever she wanted to know and got them together last month. Their conversation, slightly edited for space and clarity, appears below.

General: You have an incredible history and path that I’ve done some research and see the background that’s helped you be established and get you where you are today. One of the things that was most intriguing was to see was that you said you started this company from your kitchen table and as you were growing it came down to a decision where are you at a crossroads where you have to close the doors or …

Bonadio: I try not to remember those days.

General: But it probably has made an impact to get you where you are today, right?

Bonadio: I think every entrepreneur has had something like that in their background somewhere because it never goes straight up. Sometimes the dips are pretty deep. That was about 1994.

General: Did it have an impact on your success today? Is it something you draw back on?

Bonadio: Yes, because when you’re staring into the abyss, it does change the way you think about things. The best managers ever are the ones who almost failed and figured it out. Because you never know how good a manager is until they’re up against all the problems of the world. It wasn’t just me. We had a lot of good people here who put their hands together and took us from a very difficult situation to a very successful situation. But you learn from adversity and that was an adverse time. We learned a lot about what to do, what not to do. The one thing I learned out of that was that in any type of organization, the key people have to be going in the same direction. They have to be on the same page. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. And if they’re going in the same direction and your competition is outside, not inside, you can be very successful. But if the competition is inside, you’re probably doomed sooner or later to not be successful.

General: From what I understand, it seems Bonadio has an incredible culture and that’s something that you pride yourselves on and I’m sure has contributed to your success today. What can you say about the importance of culture in business?

Bonadio: Like in any personal service, like advertising, it always comes back to people. When our people are happy and they enjoy coming to work, then they do really good work. When they do really good work, the clients are really happy. And when the clients are really happy, they come back for more services and they tell their friends, which means that there’s more work for everybody. That positive momentum continues to go around and around, but it starts with happy people who want to come to work every day. So we bend over backwards to try to make that happen and we’re successful. Certainly not—we have 800 employees—not every single case, but a very, very high percentage of our people. Almost 90 percent of our employees say this is a great place to work and that is where all of the success really starts. But you have to work on it. It does not come easily. People need to be respected, people need to feel comfortable, they have to be satisfied, they have to feel a purpose when they come to work that there’s something more than, you know, doing a tax return. When they do, it starts that wheel of positive activity.

General: You have to invest in it as well. So how you come to work and what you bring to work and what you invest in it is a lot of what you’re going to get out. There are a lot skill sets and those things that are teachable, but the things that aren’t, what would you tell a young professional are some top traits to be mindful of or to have some self-awareness about?

Bonadio: They go back to the simple things you learned when you were growing up. If you had solid parents, they taught you these things. Respect for people. I don’t care how long you’ve been here. I don’t care what type of client business you have. If you’re not respecting the people around you, you don’t belong here. We weed it out. We actually call it the jerk-free environment, but we mean it. No one wants to work with a jerk. People ask me, “How do you know when you’ve got a jerk?” You know. You just know. So when you’re constantly monitoring that work environment, when people do not fit the culture, you’re asking them not to stay here. And when they do fit the culture, you’re rewarding them and giving them positive feedback. We have a recognition system that we use here with Brand Integrity and we find people doing good things. There’s hundreds of them every week where people are constantly saying, “I saw Rebecca doing a great job, so I want to recognize her.” They get points for it and at the end of the year they get to trade it in. So we give them incentives to do it, but the real incentive is people want to be recognized, they want to be respected, they want to like what they’re doing and they want to like the people around them.

Tom Bonadio and Nadine General. (Bennett Loudon)

Tom Bonadio and Nadine General. (Bennett Loudon)

General: It’s very similar at Dixon Schwabl. We have a chip program—like poker chips—and you trade them in. But it’s true. People do want to be appreciated and you give your blood, sweat and tears and put your heart and soul into things, but if the acknowledgement isn’t there … to see that it’s meaningful work, that they have a purpose.

Bonadio: And they have to see opportunity. We have four pillars that we build our strategic plan around. The first one is people, the second one is good client service, the third one is excellence in what we do, and the fourth one is growth. One of our key virtues here is we want to grow, not just to get bigger but to create career paths, to create opportunities. Not only does someone want to be respected, but they want to see their future. If they are in a position where, literally, they have to wait for somebody to die to move up, they’re going to go somewhere else. Good people will seek an opportunity. We want to be the best opportunity for them, and we do that by growing our organization, creating opportunities for everybody.

General: What’s something that you have learned about yourself in your journey?

Bonadio: I’ve learned that I need to have really good people around me. Probably the best thing a leader can do is find people that are a lot smarter than they are and surround themselves with those people and let them do what they’re going to do. There’s a difference between controlling everything that’s happening and leading people. If you’re overly controlling, good people will go somewhere else. But if you’re leading them in the right direction, they’ll want to stay there. Everything comes back to really quality people: finding quality people, giving them a great experience, showing them opportunity and let it feed through the operation and it grows. Positive things grow. Negative things grow too, so you want to stay away from those. Finding good people, getting the best people you can get, and treating them with great respect is probably the best lesson I’ve learned over the years.

General: Is that something that you learned growing up?

Bonadio: I grew up in an Italian family. You learned how to be respectful or you wished you had learned how to be respectful. You learned the hard way.

General: Did you start working at a young age?

Bonadio: 11. I worked at Rubino’s Italian Foods. I literally started working at 11 years old, so the good work ethic, which I think is part of a good employee, my parents taught me that really early. There’s a good positive feeling when you’re working and you’re earning something. All of that was built into me really early.

General: Obviously it’s contributed, again, to where you are today.

Bonadio: But we have a lot of people here who have similar experiences. They come from middle, sometimes lower, income families and they learned hard work and they want to get ahead, so it always is good to find people who are self-motivated. When you’re trying to motivate people and you start off with someone who is self-motivated, it’s a lot easier to continue the positive reaction.

General: I know giving back is a big deal and it’s very important to you. What would you say to a young professional who is looking to make an impact about the importance of giving your time?

Bonadio: If you’re going to have purpose in your career, it has to go beyond your daily environment of whatever you do. Purpose can be in a lot of different areas. What we coach our people is find something outside that really touches your heart, something that’s important to you. Some people have had experiences in their life where they’ve had family members that have had certain diseases or they have institutions that they really like. Find an organization that fits your internal clock and spend time with it and help it grow. To me, the more I’ve given things in my life, the more I’ve gotten back. It’s almost inevitable that when you’re really giving and you’re trying to help people or an organization or something else that’s important to you—and it’s different, every person’s got a different purpose—it comes back. It either comes back in career improvement of self-satisfaction, but it really does come back.

General: Have you ever followed a five- or 10-year plan?

Bonadio: We have a strategic plan here every three to five years, and we live by it. It’s a corporate plan, so it starts with each of our teams, determining where they want to be in the next three to five years. It goes around those four pillars I talked to you about before, and it builds up to a corporate plan. It’s really a roadmap for us. It’s part of keeping everybody going the same direction. Everybody’s involved in it, and they feel like they they own a piece of it. We give it to everybody in the organization. Every single employee gets a copy of our strategic plan. We don’t care if competitors get it. This is our mantra. This is what we’re going to do in the next three years. And when everybody has a like mind, they’re all going in the same direction, it creates more of that positive momentum. I think it’s been an advantage for us, because a lot of professionals are really good at doing what they do, but they’re not really very good at planning their own businesses. Part of our success has been we’ve been more strategic about what we’re going to do and we agree what we’re going to do years before we do it, so when it happens, it’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, that was in the plan.”

General: Have you always been a planner personally?

Bonadio: My first plan was to make enough money to buy a car.

General: How important do you think that is for young professionals?

Bonadio: I think it’s very important. I always have this other saying, “You plan and God’s laughing at you.” But if you plan, you have a little more control. We think we have a lot of control, but we don’t.

General: Or if it’s thrown, you still have a trajectory.

Bonadio: Right, I can go back to this. So I think really people should be thinking about their lives in multi-years ahead. Where do I really want to go? Have a goal. It’s like anything else. If you don’t have a goal, you’re never going to get there, so make goals. Then you’ve got something you’re striving for. It’s self-motivating, and if it isn’t where you want to go, change your goals, modify your plan. But have a plan. When you get up in the morning, there’s more than, “I’m just going to go into work today.”

General: Have you always had a mentor?

Bonadio: Yes, starting with my parents as my first mentors, and then as I got into college I had a number of mentors there, mostly professors at St. John Fisher. Then as I went into my career, I started at one of the big eight, back then, and there were people there that were mentoring me. But there was a point in there where I actually switched from being mentored to being more of a mentor. I have what I would call people I really look up to. I may not meet with them on a regular basis, but I really have taken great interest in what they’ve accomplished.

General: Is there anything else you want to add?

Bonadio: Family is a big deal. I’ve got four grandkids. So that’s really part of that purpose. You need to have other things besides coming to work.

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