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In a difficult economy, an optimistic outlook

Rochester Business Journal
September 27, 2013

Timothy Mason is a glass-half-full guy, and he believes all entrepreneurs share that optimistic frame of mind. Yet Mason, president of the Small Business Council of Rochester, is clear-eyed about the challenges small firms here face.

As president and CEO of Mason Selkowitz Marketing, he has experienced firsthand the impact of the recession and the burden of taxes and unfunded mandates. A graduate of Fairport High School and St. Bonaventure University, Mason joined the firm in the early 1990s and has led its growth from a two-person operation to a full-service agency with 30 staffers. He acquired the business from Donn Selkowitz in January 2010 after serving as president and chief operating officer since 2001.

In an interview with Rochester Business Journal editor Paul Ericson, Mason fielded questions on a range of topics.


ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: In terms of job growth, Rochester had one of the stronger local economies nationwide in the first couple of years of recovery from the recession. But that advantage seems to have faded, and in July metropolitan Rochester was the only upstate region to post a loss in private-sector jobs. What’s your overall sense of the state of the local economy today?

TIMOTHY MASON: While we try to remain optimistic, the local economy is not performing well. To a person, when I ask local small-business leaders about their business on a local level, there’s a definite hesitation, usually a shaking of the head and a comment that they’ve never had to work harder in their lives to try and remain successful.

While unemployment is down, other growth factors such as job creation and gross domestic product are behind other areas of the state and country. While increased cuts from Bausch & Lomb and Kodak cannot be discounted, they’ve been in decline for some time. I actually believe this creates opportunities for future economic growth as former Kodak and B&L employees accept the risk and challenges of business ownership and pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship.

But certainly a tightening access to capital and a definite concern about rising business expenses— workers’ compensation, liability insurance, the cost impact of health care reform, and the continued ability to attract younger, educated, talented people with fair and competitive wages and benefit packages—weigh heavily on local business leaders. I know firsthand that these are issues that make it difficult for business owners to make decisions that will affect growth, especially creating new jobs. In addition, these are all critical business concerns that the Small Business Council continues to address through education and advocacy programs.

Overall, I believe the local economy is well-positioned to succeed. Our workforce and educational infrastructure are key assets that will ensure long-term stability. To move beyond stability into growth, the region must commit to initiatives to secure manufacturing jobs, foster middle-skills training and career opportunities, and make New York more business-friendly, such as lower taxes, less red tape, fewer mandates, less regulation—you get the idea.

In the end, this requires support from private and public leaders to ensure high-potential companies—firms demonstrating solid revenue and employment growth—continue to receive adequate resources and incentives to stay in Rochester. I know that the Rochester Business Alliance and Greater Rochester Enterprise specifically are very committed to this effort.

RBJ: More specifically, how are small businesses faring in the Rochester area?

MASON: Small businesses require additional support to become high-growth, high-impact contributors to the local economy. The average small-business owner wears multiple hats and juggles multiple responsibilities. Many owners lack the skills or know-how to adequately grow their business and may require additional support as it relates to finance, marketing, sales or operations. Small businesses need to educate themselves about the resources, programs and support available at the local, state and federal level as well as from private entities and organizations.

The majority of businesses in the Rochester region, like the SBC’s membership, are small operations that require networking, education and visibility to enable growth. Approximately 98 percent of businesses in Rochester employ less than 100 people. More than half of businesses in the Rochester region employ less than five. Businesses that successfully create jobs are smaller (1-19) and younger (19 years). The Rochester region’s small businesses need the region to invest in retaining and attracting top talent.

With Upstate New York growing older, small businesses planning for the future need to bring on younger talent. Rochester shares similar characteristics to Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh (low cost of living, quality of life, authentic neighborhoods, etc.), but is falling behind when it comes to highly educated fields. To attract top talent, Rochester must continue to support positive activity around areas such as health care, education and technology.

Many small businesses rely on local sales to fuel revenue. Attracting younger candidates who will build careers, start families and invest in the region is important for the future of small businesses in the region.

RBJ: How did your own business weather the recession? What lessons from your own experience might be helpful to other firms that are still struggling?

MASON: As a marketing and communications company, we have felt the brunt of an economic recession. Unfortunately, many times the easiest expenses to cut are those for advertising and marketing.

We have worked hard to broaden our geographic reach beyond the Rochester area. In fact, as clients at Kodak, B&L and other larger companies have cut marketing and sales staff, we have been able to follow many of our clients to their new companies—many outside the Rochester area. We leverage our Kodak, Bausch, Xerox experience, which has allowed our agency to create programs to face every major marketing challenge you can imagine. Now we’re the experts from out of town. Today, more than 50 percent of our business comes from companies that are out of New York State, with clients from Seattle to Boston to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—which is great in February.

Another critical success strategy has been our continued investment and expansion into digital marketing. We really felt this Internet thing was going to catch on. Today the digital side of our business accounts for 20 percent of our revenues, and it has been a terrific new business development strategy for us. Many clients have contracted with us to help them create a new website, and many times the project evolves to rebranding and positioning to make sure their new website best reflects the benefit and promise they provide to their customers. Then after the website is completed, we need to help our clients drive targeted site traffic, and that creates more opportunity for us to support their business.

With the continued expansion of our digital footprint is our ability to provide better tracking and measurement, or analytics, on the impact of digital marketing programs such as search engine marketing, search engine optimization, digital advertising, mobile marketing, digital video programs. All these tools provide the ability to easily measure impressions, click-throughs, conversions to phone calls, submittal of e-forms, etc. Digital marketing is where businesses are investing, and so we need to be there.

Finally, and perhaps most important, we have tried to maintain a streamlined, flat organization and be smart about adding new staff. Teamwork has been at the forefront of our success. Each of us wears a lot of hats. While I’m the CEO, I have no idea what a CEO does these days, since I’m busy writing, helping clients develop strategy, supporting the needs of the rest of the company. I think the secret to success in a down economy is no secret at all; it’s just old-fashioned hard work.

RBJ: Of all the things you must do to run your own business, what do you personally find most challenging?

MASON: As I mentioned, I wear a lot of hats and find myself at times being too tactical and not as strategic as I would like to be. Certainly, meeting the needs of our clients is first and foremost. That’s what has made our agency successful. As a business owner, the challenge for me is finding the time to work “on” the business and not always “in” the business.

It’s funny; we do a really good job helping our clients build strategies for the future, yet I struggle to find the time to do it for my own company. To ensure my business will be a viable, thriving business in the future, I have to find the time to understand what the future looks like, what the trends are in our business. What am I not doing today that I need to be doing tomorrow? Unfortunately, it’s been a sometimes thing; I think to be successful it needs to be a most-of-the- time thing. It’s one of my most important objectives for the future.

RBJ: How long have you been a member of the Small Business Council, and how has it helped you as a business leader?

MASON: Our company has been a member of the Small Business Council for six years and has found it extremely beneficial to our business. I think the best thing has been the people and companies we have been able to meet through our active participation as a member. We have probably earned five to 10 new business opportunities through our networking as a member of the SBC. It really is why I have personally committed to leadership positions within the organization and engaged my team members to get more involved.

There are so many terrific companies in the Rochester area that we would not have known about if it weren’t for the SBC. And now these same companies know about us. I think the best part has been the acquaintances with fellow small-business leaders that have resulted from seeing the same faces event after event, that have now turned into personal friendships. It has been a very rewarding experience personally and professionally.

RBJ: As SBC president, what are some of your top goals?

MASON: The presidency is only a one-year term, so it’s tough to develop any long-term agenda for the organization. But starting out the year, I did create some goals that as a board we continue to work hard to achieve.

First was to deliver great programs and events that are memorable and valuable. Our boot camp agenda this year was outstanding and we had a near sellout for a terrific presentation by Russ Brandon and Doug Marrone from the Buffalo Bills at our Headliner event, so I feel like we have accomplished this goal. Second was to effectively market the organization and the value of its programs and events in order to maintain and increase membership and program/event attendance. Boy, I hope with my background we can accomplish this goal. Great programs drive interest and membership, so my first two goals really go together. I’m pleased to say our membership is up, year over year.

There are so many organizations out there, so my third goal was to increase collaboration with other organizations that can support our efforts or benefit from our programs and events. Next was to advocate for small businesses in the Rochester region. I was so pleased to be able to join my fellow board members and the team from the RBA at Small Business Day in Albany this year. We were able to meet with our local legislators and express the concerns of small business. The Rochester contingent was one of the best represented from across the state, and while one day of meetings doesn’t make a huge difference, it sent a strong signal that we were committed to seeing change at the state level.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that in everything we do, we celebrate the role of small business in our community. The Business Person of the Year Gala is certainly dedicated to this objective, but I believe we need to continually celebrate and thank small-business leaders for the impact their perseverance has had on our community.

RBJ: The Boot Camp Series is a very popular program among SBC members. What does the program entail, and why do members find it so valuable?

MASON: The SBC Boot Camp Series is at the backbone of our program offering. We offer nine monthly programs throughout the year, beginning in March and continuing through November. Boot camps are free to our members while guests pay $25—that’s a $225 value to an individual member. Corporate members can bring four people from their organization for free.

Topics cover a wide variety of business-critical issues to small businesses, including marketing, social media, health care reform, managing employees, succession planning, IT solutions, financing and tax strategy. Most of these sessions offer advice and strategies that can be immediately implemented by small businesses. Best of all, the content is delivered by the leading local companies in the specific area of expertise, many times by the principals and partners of these organizations. Surveys completed after each session continually show that our members find these programs extremely beneficial.

RBJ: The Decision Makers’ Forum was launched in 2012. What does this program offer?

MASON: The Decision Makers’ Forum is a much more interactive session than our boot camps. The topic provides in-depth discussion of a high-profile issue facing small business. The program includes a moderated discussion followed by an open discussion between attendees and the panel of local experts in the topic area.

This format enables attendees to share their own experiences and challenges with a larger group and seek the advice of panel members on prospective strategies. We’ve had two sessions to date, and both were extremely well attended.

The forum includes a networking reception, dinner and discussion. Cost is $30 for SBC members and $45 for non-members.

RBJ: This is the third year that the SBC has named finalists and handed out awards in two Business Person of the Year categories—businesses with more than 50 employees and those with fewer than 50 employees. Why did the SBC decide to make this change?

MASON: The numbers around small business in our region help explain why we created two categories. Approximately 98 percent of businesses in Rochester employ less than 100 people, and nearly half of these companies employ less than five. These numbers are consistent with the membership of the SBC. By creating two categories, it would help us encourage nominations and applications from more companies and help ensure that we paid tribute and celebrated the success not only of the larger-size companies but the smaller companies as well. We didn’t want there to be any concern by small-company business leaders on their ability to compete for the award against the larger-size companies.

Having two categories allows us to compare companies of similar sizes against the award criteria. A company with more than 100 employees certainly may face different business challenges and opportunities in the areas of growth, leadership, achievement and community service and have access to more means to support efforts in these areas than a company of 10 employees.

RBJ: With SBC members, do you find that size makes a significant difference in terms of issues such as health care and other benefit costs, regulation, and so on? Or are the key issues generally the same regardless of business size?

MASON: I believe the concerns are the same. (But) the larger companies may have staff dedicated to researching, managing and dealing with these issues. Many times, the smaller companies don’t have the infrastructure or internal expertise to understand and manage the issues. I think that’s why a program like our boot camp on health care reform drew nearly 100 members to learn about its potential impact on their companies.

I think that will remain the value of the Small Business Council and what we will need to make sure we deliver to our member companies—access to information that helps them successfully manage through these issues or at a minimum make sure they are aware of the potential ramifications they pose.

RBJ: What are SBC members’ top concerns in Albany right now?

MASON: When members of the SBC board attended Small Business Day in Albany in April, there was a specific six-point agenda agreed to by business councils and chambers from across the state, three points of which were most critical. Specifically, Scaffold Law reform, which now places 100 percent liability on the employer even in the event of complete employee negligence, sending insurance costs sky-high and in turn significantly raising project costs, which often ends up on the backs of taxpayers.

The burdensome and seemingly unnecessary paperwork required by the Wage Theft Protection Act was another agenda issue. This requirement is taking employers considerable time to implement, and the larger the company the more costly its implementation—not to mention a lack of understanding of the necessity of the information required.

Finally, unfunded mandates that continue to add to the state tax burden and the lack of the seating of the Health Care Quality and Cost Containment Commission …, promised since 2007. Of course, the high state taxes remain an ongoing concern of every small business.

New York’s business environment continues to pose challenges for business owners. And while they say (in Albany) they’re “Open for Business,” the continued financial and administrative burdens placed on small business would indicate just the opposite.

RBJ: Finally, looking ahead, are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for small businesses in the Rochester region?

MASON: I’m hoping that there’s not a small-business owner in the Rochester region that wouldn’t say that they were optimistic about the future. That’s the mindset of an entrepreneur. The glass is never half-empty; it’s always half-full. That said, we need to continue to push for reforms in Albany to help us succeed. Our legislators in Albany need to be advocates for small-business success.

One of the main reasons that I am optimistic about the future of small business is the strength of the small-business leaders in our community. Everyone I’ve met as a member, and now president, of the Small Business Council cares deeply for this community, is proud of their company team members and is committed to doing whatever it takes to make their business a success. That’s why small business will continue to drive the success of the Rochester region.

9/27/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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