Today marks the final installment of our history with USFSB.  We hope that you have enjoyed reading our story.  Starting on Friday, we will be bringing you encore posts on personal, social and business topics.  – Joe & Annemarie

HE SAYS:

Well, Annemarie and I have survived these many years living and working together and, looking back, we appreciate the opportunities and experiences USFSB has afforded us.   It may not have been the safe road but it certainly has been interesting and rewarding.

Now, can we continue to make this work even though all of our children have left the nest leaving Annemarie and me with nothing to distract us from each other?

 SHE SAYS:

Since 2005, when we closed the NYC office, we have also changed a number of our vendor programs.  At times, we make a decision that a national vendor is just not as suitable for our members as we had hoped and sometime the vendors have major corporate or product changes that cause them to sever their Affinity relationships with us.

Much like other small business owners, we are constantly looking for products and services that are the best fit for our small business members and will help us grow our business.   These last couple of years has been the most challenging as we have down-sized as much as we can without compromising the integrity of our business.

As Joe and I approach our retirement years, we have been trying to develop a number of options for the business.  That is our current story as we complete construction on a winter home in Arizona and look forward to spending some time there next winter.

As we built that house over the last two years, in some ways, our personal life became part of the office fabric.  But that is a topic for later!

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

SHE SAYS:

             While in high school and even in college, our two oldest sons and their friends spent summers and school vacations working in the office.  They loved being able to bring their friends there and their friends loved getting a small paycheck, from time to time.  The boys learned the value of working in a family business by doing any jobs we needed them to do.  At times, it was data entry, filing, organizing our stored files, making calls to update member information, or stuff envelopes for billing.   No matter what it was, they enjoyed working here.  

             By the time the two older boys graduated from high school in 2000, our son, Joseph, would work at USFSB and he, also, brought his friends to work here.  After he left for college in 2003, only our daughter, Julia, was left at home and she too came in to the office to work, from time to time, along with her friends.  I believe it was a valuable experience for all of them and helped form the great work ethic each of them has today. 

             In 2005, after our two older boys graduated from college and had worked in respective fields for a year, they became intrigued by becoming business owners.  They always had an entrepreneurial spirit.  As early as the age of 14, they started their own ‘handyman’ business which, by the time they left for college, they had sold to other kids in the area.   They approached us about starting a NYC branch office of USFSB.  Although we didn’t necessarily want them to do this, they convinced us they were serious and we finally agreed. 

             They spent about a year working at this endeavor with a couple of friends as partners.  They worked very hard at growing the membership in the NYC area.  They made many contacts with business leaders, brokers and politicians and ran a monthly networking event.   I attended many of these events and was very impressed by the speakers they engaged and the activities they planned.  They had some success with their activities, but eventually, when it didn’t grow at the rate they might have expected, they all realized that they wanted to move on to their own careers.  They each went back to school to obtain Masters’ degrees and work successfully in their respective fields.   

             Our son, Joseph, never had the opportunity to join them in this endeavor because he was still in college.  He is now an Art Director with an ad agency in NYC, but during his college years he worked with us during breaks and in the summer.  In addition to the usual office activities, he used his talents to help create some of the marketing pieces and helped work on design ideas for our website.  We considered beginning a small business website at one time and Joseph was instrumental in helping model the design.

             Our daughter, Julia, continued to work in the office during summers and breaks right up until last summer after her freshman year of college.  Her pursuit of going to medical school will prevent her from joining us this summer as she has to begin doing internships in that field. 

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

HE SAYS:

My father had operated his own small business when I was growing up and I spent several summers helping him.   Annemarie and I soon came to the conclusion that our children should work at USFSB during the summer and on school breaks.   We felt that it was important for them to understand how our family business operated and to learn the value of working for their spending money and to start saving for the future.

All of our children would come to the office to do such things as stuff envelopes for mailings, filing, and special projects that we would create for them.   We even gave some of their friends work to do at USFSB, at times, so that USFSB truly became both a fun and meaningful experience for our children and their friends.

Matthew and Michael are twins and our first born.  They both obtained engineering degrees from Syracuse University in 2004.   Matthew in civil engineering and Michael in mechanical engineering.   Matthew started a job in the Philadelphia area with a large engineering firm and was going to Villanova at night to pursue his masters.  Michael already knew that he did not want a career in engineering and went to New York City to pursue several business opportunities.

It was not long before both Matthew and Michael approached us about letting them start a New York City office of USFSB which they would run with several friends.   Annemarie and I were reluctant, at best, since we felt that they were too young and too inexperienced to start, essentially, a new business even if it was with our help and the backing of USFSB.  Also, we tried to counsel them on the possible problems to be encountered when you try to mix friendship with business.

Further, we had many conversations with Matthew about the merits (or lack thereof) of giving up his engineering career and moving to New York City and with Michael about pursuing his MBA before embarking on a business venture.

They were persistent and would not be dissuaded.   They worked up a reasonable business plan for the new office and we, finally, gave them the green light to proceed.   They had grown up working at USFSB and Annemarie and I felt that if USFSB was to really be a family business, we could not deny our children the opportunity to find their place at USFSB.

Annemarie and I decided that we were not going to unduly interfere with the way Matthew and Michael ran the New York City office since we viewed their involvement, to some extent, as a learning experience and we wanted to give them room for some experimentation as part of that learning experience.  We knew that this venture could wind up just becoming a costly and time consuming lesson; however, we also had confidence in them and believed that they would be successful even if some mistakes were made along the way.

Our children  were raised to be respectful which was a great asset for them when interacting with our employees.   They never tried to take advantage of their status as our children when dealing with our employees and always treated  our employees with respect.   In return, our employees were very helpful to them and also treated them with respect.

The element of trust is very important.  Annemarie and I enjoyed working with Matthew and Michael at this level since we knew we could trust them without question.   This allowed us to let them into our “inner circle” and to share our thoughts, concerns and aspirations about the business with them.

Matthew and Michael, with their friends, reached a certain level of success with the New York City office over the course of the year that they kept it open.   They came up with some very inventive business plans, expanded the government affairs and networking activities, and worked very hard at developing new business opportunities for USFSB.   In the final analysis, there just was not enough growth to justify the costs of a separate office in New York City.   Eventually, we all came to the conclusion that it was time to close the office and for our children and their friends to move on and get back to their lives where they had left off before USFSB.

Annemarie and I were proud of their efforts and they left USFSB better than they had found it.   We also believed that they learned a lot about business and themselves and that this experience would serve them well in the future.   In fact, both Matthew and Michael have successfully moved on with their lives and careers.

Matthew obtained his masters in civil engineering from Columbia University and recently secured his Professional Engineering License.   He now works for a large engineering firm in New York City helping to oversee a billion dollar project in Brooklyn.

Michael went on to obtain an MBA degree from Columbia University and now works for an up and coming online business in the San Francisco area.

We believe that all of our children have learned and benefit from their involvement with USFSB.  Our son, Joseph, graduated from Syracuse University in 2007 with a degree in Advertising Design and works for a large pharmaceutical advertising agency in New York City.   Our daughter, Julia, is a biology major at Syracuse University (I detect a pattern here) and intends to go on to medical school.

Even though USFSB will not be a career for any of our children, it has had a meaningful and lasting impact and influence on their lives.   They have seen what can be accomplished when a family works together for a common goal.   I believe it is clear that USFSB has still fulfilled its mission of helping to provide our children with the tools and skills to have  productive and rewarding futures.

Come back on Friday to hear Annemarie’s side of the story!

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

SHE SAYS:

             By 1998, our oldest boys were in high school and they were helpful with driving themselves and their younger brother and sister, when needed.  We were working hard at the office to improve the business and were doing a good job at it.  I was working more hours than at my previous job plus I was traveling, so while Julia was in elementary school and middle school, I wasn’t around as much as when the boys were that age.  In the meantime, I can remember times that each of our children would say “do you always have to talk about work?”  It was true.  We spent a lot of time talking about our business plans, strategies and staff. 

             As Joe mentioned, one time, when we were visiting Matthew in Philadelphia on a good four hour ride, Julia was in the back seat and after about two hours of office talk, she finally said, “Please, can you two stop talking about the office for the rest of the trip?”  We agreed, but a few minutes later we went right back to it.  I think our children have come to realize that being a business owner, you almost never stop working. 

             Since Julia was only 8 years old when I started working at USFSB, and I was working longer hours and traveling, I always worried that Julia was ‘short-changed’ because I was less involved in her elementary school activities than I was with the boys.  I tried to make up for it by being involved in her other activities, like travel soccer.  We always made time for family trips with the boys when they played travel soccer and we continued to do this for Julia.  Having this business made it possible for us to sponsor each of their teams, at times, so it gave them more reason to be proud of being part of a family business whose name was part of their activities. 

             For a few summers in a row, beginning in 1997, we really made an effort to create more family time and as a family, we took 3 weeks each summer on trips to California, Italy, England, Scotland and France.  This traveling was very enriching for our children and to this day, they all love to travel whenever they have the opportunity. 

            Another reason for so much conversation at home was that I did not want to discuss some things in the office.  Some of those things included the interaction of the employees and also topics that Joe and I disagreed upon.  I never wanted to make it appear in the office that we ‘argued’.  If we did disagree on something, it was easier for me to drop the conversation in the office and continue it at home, so that we could present a united front in the office. 

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

HE SAYS:

Annemarie’s reluctance to be at USFSB took a long time to dissipate and there were times that I felt she was acting out and expressing her desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else.  There were times when she would be late to work for no apparent reason or would take days off for what I believed were frivolous excuses.   I would get frustrated and eventually confront her at which time she would become indignant and defensive.   It was a no win situation for both of us.   Only once did she openly express her feelings that she did not like being at USFSB or the way I was treating her.

Usually, our frustration was not so dramatic and was more about the fact that the business was taking over our entire lives.   There was no escape!

When I practiced law, I tried very hard to keep my business/professional life separate from my home life.  I did not want it to intrude on my family and my quality time with my children.

USFSB was an entirely different story.   First, there was the on-going debate (debate is a much better word than argument) of whether or not Annemarie could and would join me at USFSB.   Then there was the debate of whether or not Annemarie could or would stay with me at USFSB.  Then, finally, the debate of whether or not Annemarie could or would ever enjoy being with me at USFSB.

We also had to deal with the practical problems of spending so much time together and then trying to create a clear separation between our workday and our family life.   This was further complicated by the fact that it was very easy to find ourselves bringing the office home with us and discussing work during family time.  The lines that separated these aspects of our lives became blurred.   Not only were we together all the time, we seemed to be able to interject USFSB into almost any topic of conversation and any activity.   The worst part of that is the impact it had on our children, particularly, our daughter who was only eight years old when USFSB became part of our family.

Annemarie and I have always made time for each other and our children; however, we were learning that there can be too much of a good thing.   Annemarie and I were, essentially, together every day all day which, of course, is way too much togetherness for any sane person to handle.   Annemarie and I found that spending so much time together was placing a fair amount of stress on our marriage.  Even though we are a relatively compatible couple (after 31 years we better be) we still needed some time to ourselves to be able to pursue our own interests.  We have developed some separate activities, particularly, as our children got older and needed us less; however, it still is very hard to do when you are both working and living together.

I remember one time when we were traveling in the car with our daughter, she asked us not to talk about the office for a while and we agreed.   As hard as we tried, we fell right into a discussion about something at the office, within minutes, much to the consternation of our daughter.  It seemed that USFSB was with us where ever we went whether we liked it or not.

There is also the problem of bringing family and personal issues to the office.  Like any couple, there have been times when Annemarie and I would have personal disagreements at home (how anyone could disagree with me I will never understand) and they would spill over into the office.   As you might imagine, we found it very difficult to separate our personal relationship with our business relationship.   This, I am sure, caused some discomfort for our employees and we tried to make sure it did not happen very often.

Despite all of the difficulties we have encountered, the benefits we have enjoyed by working with and relying on someone whom you can trust without question and who you know shares the same aspirations and goals has far outweighed any of the problems.

Come back on Friday to hear Annemarie’s side of the story!

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

SHE SAYS:

             I believe Joe and I were both viewed as interlopers and at first the employees seemed to want to ‘train’ us.  I think their loyalty and help to the company while Joe’s brother was sick made them feel ‘entitled’ to run things the way they wanted and they did not, necessarily, want to push the envelope to work any harder than they were already working. 

             I remember when I first started to work at USFSB there were two things that really annoyed me, the lunch time routine and the dress code.  

             It seemed that lunch time started around 10:30, at which time discussion began about where to order lunch.  Then, the menu would be passed around, then someone would finally call to order lunch, then collect the money, then someone would go pick it up, then someone would figure out who received what change, then they would eat lunch, then the change would be distributed, then lunch was finally over—around 1:30.   I write this in such a long run-on sentence to illustrate the process that dragged out this way every day!  Of course, we eventually put a stop to this activity. 

             Looking back on it, it may seem trivial, but I think one reason I was resented was that when I came there, I continued to dress in the professional manner I always did at my previous job.  I didn’t even think about it, I just dressed for work the way I always did.   In this office, we very rarely have any visitors and people dressed very casually.  The dress code was ridiculously casual!  One of the higher level employees wore sweat pants very often and I was quite vocal about this.  This annoyed the employees and I’m sure they thought I was too ‘uppity’. 

             Having dressed in a suit every day for work when practicing law, Joe even started to dress in a very casual manner (jeans) and to this day, it is an ‘argument’ we have about whether or not people’s work demeanor can be shaped by the type of clothes they wear to work.  I did not give in for a long time, but I eventually got to a point where I, also, dressed in a more casual manner.  As our staff evolved over the years, everyone has pretty much adopted this casual style.    

             It was becoming clear that some of the original employees were not working to their potential and over time, we began to hire more motivated people.  I became an integral part of that hiring process, but I, also, had to learn more about other aspects of the business in order to hire people who we thought were qualified.  Over the years, we have had some turn-over with the employees both good and bad, but I believe we finally have the correct mix of personalities and talents that help our business prosper. 

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

HE SAYS:

As pointed out, my brother never married and had no children.   He had operated the business from the perspective of a single person.  Once he had grown the business to the extent that it was able to meet his needs, I believe, he was satisfied.   He did not have a family to worry about so the business was there solely to feed his single life style.

His attitude toward the business simply reflected the perspective and priorities of someone who was not responsible for the support and comfort of anyone else.  He and I would often joke about the difference between his life style and mine.   It did not go un-noticed that what he spent on the monthly lease for his expensive sports car was about the same as what Annemarie and I spent on day care for our children.  It all comes down to a matter of priorities.

Once I understood the potential of USFSB, I had higher goals than the needs of just Annemarie and me.   I knew that with the help and support of my family, I would try to continue to grow the business so that it could be of benefit to our children long into the future.

Also, in order to give meaning to the difficult and unfortunate circumstances of my brother’s illness that brought me to USFSB, I felt that it was incumbent on me to use any success I may enjoy from USFSB for a higher purpose.  To that end, as USFSB prospered, Annemarie and I, on many occasions, used the resources of USFSB to provide a helping hand to our friends, relatives, and various worthy causes.

I came to USFSB with some advantages over Annemarie.   I had many years of experience being my own boss while operating my law business.   Yes, contrary to popular belief, a sole practitioner law office is much like any other small business and requires the same planning, decision making, and attention to details.   You learn to be independent and self reliant when you run your own small business.

The one aspect of running USFSB that was a difficult adjustment for me was the fact that I now had to supervise employees who looked to me for direction.   In my law practice, I only needed limited help and was used to the idea of being somewhat of a “lone wolf”.   Now, I had to not only interact with and direct my new found employees, I, also, had to deal with the constant “office politics” that was always lurking in the background.   It may not have helped that all of the employees happened to be women.

Annemarie, on the other hand, came from a large office and was not used to dealing with a small number of employees in the more intimate setting of a small business.  Even with that, I had hoped that Annemarie would be better suited to dealing with the office politics and would be a good buffer between me and the employees.  This proved to be more difficult then I had imagined.

Annemarie, coming to USFSB three years after me, was looked at somewhat as an intruder and was not, let’s say, welcomed with open arms.   She was not readily accepted by the employees as their boss and, in some ways, I found myself having to become a mediator between Annemarie and the employees.   This was disturbing and a distraction in that rather than being a buffer for me from the office politics, Annemarie found herself being dragged into the office politics.

I had maintained all of the employees who were at USFSB when my brother passed away and who had all been hired by my brother.  They had been a big help to me during my brother’s illness and, in many ways, they were very instrumental in keeping USFSB running during my transition from caretaker to owner of USFSB.

Because of their knowledge of the business and the loyalty I felt towards them for their help, I did not feel comfortable, in the early years, letting any of them go even though I soon realized that not all of them shared my vision for the future.  Eventually, over the years, as each employee left for one reason or another, Annemarie and I were able to replace them with people we felt better suited our vision of USFSB.

Annemarie’s transition into USFSB was more difficult than we had hoped; however, she slowly won the respect of the employees and was making a great contribution to the business, particularly, as she took over the management of our largest benefit program which had grown tremendously and needed a lot of attention and nurturing.   This gave me the ability to work on other aspects of the business while being secure in the knowledge that this benefit program was being taken care of properly.

Come back on Friday to hear Annemarie’s side of the story!

WHAT DO YOU SAY?