In early June, the Santa Clarita Valley Business Journal brought together five executives from companies in five different professional services industries to discuss their particular businesses and workplace issues common to all businesses. Attending the roundtable were: John Shaffery, a founding partner at Poole & Shaffery law firm; Tamara Gurney, president and CEO of Mission Valley Bank; Lindahl Lucas, president of Lucas Insurance Services; Gary Saenger, president of Saenger Associates executive search firm and Heather Harbo, partner at Condie, Thomas & Harbo CPAs.
What is the single best piece of advice that has been given to you in your career?
HARBO: Gary Condie has been my mentor throughout my entire career. His advice is “client services” are most important. Keep your clients happy. Handle the work that they don’t want to deal with so they can focus on their businesses. Take the weight of financial reporting and taxes off their shoulders. That’s what I enjoy doing most—client work.
SAENGER: We do retained executive recruiting. Best piece of advice: In any meeting make a difference. If you have an opinion about how you can make that organization or organization better, speak up.
LUCAS: I’ve owned an insurance company in Santa Clarita since 1989. I am constantly evolving as a person, as an employer. I think we’ve all had to change since the internet popped up. Our world has been shaken up. I always remember this quote: “Knowledge is learning from your mistakes, wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others.”
GURNEY: Don’t believe the people who tell you that you can’t do it.
SHAFFERY: I’m one of the founding partners of Poole & Shaffery. We like to think of ourselves as the law firm for your business. The best piece of advice came from my father. He shared two rules: the customer is always right and if you believe the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule No. 1.
We’re all busier than ever before, so how can you still maintain a high level of customer service?
LUCAS: Communication. A client might not be happy but if we keep communicating, we may be able to resolve it.
SAENGER: Communication and being available on their (the clients’) terms not when my office hours happen to be.
HARBO: Communication at our firm I don’t know whether it is old school but we like to pick up the phone and talk to our clients. We want to make sure that they’re getting that individualized attention that they are paying for. Some little reminders we can still do by email. I find that our clients do appreciate those phone calls. We still do a lot of face to face especially with the aging clients. They like to sit and talk to you. A lot of millennials will even text me their tax documents.
With more millennials in the workforce, how has that changed workplace culture?
SHAFFERY: One of the best companies to work for is right here in Santa Clarita—Scorpion (web site developer with many young employees). One of the things I noticed when I went there was there is this room with all these boxes. But this company doesn’t actually make a product. What are they shipping off? So, I asked the receptionist and they said that all the employees use the company’s address to have things shipped there because they’re not at home, they’re working. And then I looked to my right and there’s a basketball court. So it’s a little bit different.
You have to remember that millennials are your customers. They are making decisions. They are in charge of procurement and how they are going to find you, learn about you and validate you is different. We would not have considered the internet 3 to 5 years ago as a source of new business. Now we embrace it fully.
GURNEY: Millennials aren’t out there looking for jobs in banking. We have to figure out how to sell it to them. Some millennials come in at entry-level positions and it’s run the gamut from the ones that everybody jokes about walking in a half hour late and wonder why everybody’s upset to others who are extremely conscientious.
Is everybody fighting to get the right candidate to fill positions?
LUCAS: In business insurance it really takes a knowledgeable educated person with many years of experience to take a look at someone’s business and make sure they’re covered properly. Insurance is not sexy, people just don’t say “hey I want to become an insurance agent.” The people I might need may be living in L.A. They don’t want to come to Santa Clarita.
SHAFFERY: I think the workers are here (in Santa Clarita). Right now in hiring, it’s a buyer’s market. We’re looking for a lawyer and there’s not that many of them out there. They are working and the economy is doing well and lawyers are in demand. We have had people who are single living in other areas and working up here just wasn’t their cup of tea. Whereas those who are starting a family or who have a younger family they come up here and they think it is the best thing ever.
HARBO: Our firm has had pretty good success in hiring interns. When they’re an intern they get a good taste of what the accounting and tax worlds are really like and if we really like them and it seems to be a good fit we will offer them a position. Of course we have to train but some of them have turned out to be good, long-term employees.
What is your biggest success so far this year and what changes are you working through at your company?
LUCAS: I’ve set up my office where I have personal lines and commercial lines departments and I’ve started an investment advisory firm. I’ll also be teaching investments at UCLA.
GURNEY: I don’t know where 17 years has gone. That’s how long the bank has been open. I get examiners come in and one of the major topics is what is your succession plan? I’ve thought about it but I never thought I’d be at an age where I would have to consider retiring. I look around at who is going to be sitting in this chair 15 or 17 years from now. That’s a conversation I’ve had with my team this past year. We’re building the bench and looking at human capital and who we are going to bring in and build up into key positions. Also how can we automate as much as we can to keep expenses down. High touch supported by high tech is the only way in this day and age for a community bank to stay in business.
What is the most common misperception about your industry?
HARBO: As a CPA we have that perception that we’re just pencil pushers, that we just fill out forms and do after-the-fact reporting. In reality, that’s the tip of the iceberg. We’re doing management advisory services. We’re doing planning. We’re helping our clients establish their businesses, forming entities, individualizing what they are doing, assessing what state they’re in. We give them direction. We do retirement planning, we do estate planning and a lot of consulting.
SHAFFERY: Being a lawyer comes down to one thing: standing up to do the right thing. Our focus is to make sure businesses do the right thing. We want businesses to succeed. In order for them to succeed we want to lower their risk—to make sure they get good advice on how they do their business. We’re here to make sure businesses have a solid foundation. It’s a good profession. Law school admissions are up.
GURNEY: In the (economic) crisis “bank” became a four-letter word. And Wells Fargo brings it to the forefront again. People think bankers are greedy. The whole thing in banking is the relationship—how we can better serve the client and if we can’t we should show them the bank that they should be going to. In the recession, we stuck with a lot of our loan clients who were struggling badly. We launched an accounts receivable product and that worked really well through that period.
LUCAS: People think insurance companies are just taking your money. It’s an intangible product. We’re selling you peace of mind. What I’m doing is protecting your most valuable assets–your children, your business that you started. When your house burns down insurance covers everything.
SAENGER: When we take an executive search we want to be sure we have two winners — the company that has the job and pays the fee and the candidate that has become the chosen one. We want to be that internal consultant for the client and tell them the truth. If there’s that elephant in the room we want to talk about that.