Air travel is a necessity for most businesses, but if you ask any business traveler what he or she thinks about air travel you are likely to hear a litany of complaints about high costs, lengthy trips, time away from the office, stress, and concern about safety protocols.
Ryan Stone and Eric Legvold are making it more convenient and faster for business people to travel and offering an alternative that will allow them to work while they travel. Their businesses, Jetpool and SmartSky, work to relieve the stress of commercial business travel while providing a speedy, reliable and capable telecommunications connection.
The two business partners go back a long way. Growing up in Florida, they lived across the street from each other and attended middle school together. Fast forward a number of years when the two friends relocated to Charlotte around the same time, and reconnected.
Legvold, a pilot, was flying planes for a charter company. Stone, a Naval Academy graduate and submarine officer, was working as an engineer for Duke Energy. Stone was also pursuing an MBA and was looking at new business opportunities. The two started talking about using their different areas of expertise to start a business, and the genesis of Jetpool was underway in 2004.
Legvold had started flying at the age of 18. He learned corporate aviation during his eight years working as a corporate and charter pilot. He has more than 19 years of professional aviation and industry experience.
Stone’s contribution was his business acumen and his access to business coaches and professional reviews of business plans through the MBA program at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“There is a lot of room for companies like ours that focus solely on aviation,” explains Legvold, Jetpool’s cofounder and CEO. “We provide charter services to clients in planes that we acquire or lease. We also maintain the aircraft and provide all the regulatory compliance.”
Even in the early days of Jetpool, the partners couldn’t help but notice another big issue in business air travel—how to increase productivity on electronic devices by surmounting telecommunications constraints.
“Making a mobile phone call, let alone conducting business via telecommunications connections via video or audio during a flight, has always been fairly impractical, to say the least,” says Stone. “As a consequence, businesspeople are forced to figure out what they need to download before they travel.”
Enter SmartSky, the partners’ new launch, to provide interconnectivity with air-to-ground transmitters, allowing business travelers to work during air travel on anything that requires connectivity—making phone calls, downloading documents, or conducting video conferences.
Both businesses are located near the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it is easy to meet with customers.
Getting Off the Ground
Both Stone and Legvold are quick to credit the Charlotte business community as essential to the establishment of their companies.
“We’ve found some nice partnerships,” comments Stone. “Charlotte is the kind of community where people work together to help each other with business needs.” Both praise Packard Place, a hub for business start-ups, as extremely helpful. They also laud the Business, Innovation and Growth Council (BIG), which the two joined when starting Jetpool, and a place they returned to later.
“When we were ready to open SmartSky, we went back to BIG and got feedback and pushback that was helpful in starting the second company and separating the two,” adds Stone.
Stone’s MBA coaches and classes offered assistance. The Jetpool founders presented a business problem to a class asking for assistance with cloud-based computing. The students returned good business advice, even recommending three vendors to consider, from which Jetpool selected one to develop its IT system.
Stone and Legvold also consulted with the Golden Leaf Foundation-backed Wireless Research Center of North Carolina on patent work and wireless analysis.
Jetpool was incorporated in 2006 with three partners; Paul Sameit, another pilot, joined Legvold and Stone as CFO. Opening during the recession was difficult, but soon after its start, Jetpool was asked to bid on and won a contract for aviation from a local Fortune 500 company. Day-to-day operation benefitted from Stone’s systems engineering and Sameit’s business background, while Legvold provided the aviation and aircraft system experience.
“We provide aircraft management and charter services; we are a turnkey operation,” says Legvold.
“We offer our clients safe travel on their time, and have the ability to schedule and maintain airplanes to the level required by a Fortune 500 company,” assures Legvold. “Business executives and corporations have come to view business travel as a necessity, with the goal being to use it as a tool and a time machine.”
Private jets allow key executives to pack more into their day. Private jets typically land five to 10 miles from the traveler’s ultimate destination, allowing executives to avoid long waits for commercial flights, overnight stays and long rental-car rides. In addition, there are no security checkpoints to endure, saving even more time.
“Over the long term, the effects of wasted time and added stress can even affect career choices or early retirement options,” Stone points out. “We are able to offer a time-effective, cost-effective, productivity-effective alternative at Jetpool.”
Jetpool clients are a mix of large companies and smaller clients. For companies that require extensive executive travel, Jetpool offers charter management. Companies that don’t require as much time in the air can access private aviation through hourly chartered flights or by participating in Jetpool Shares, which combine the access of jet ownership with the financial accessibility of a lease.
Essentially, Jetpool acts as an outsourced aviation department, maintaining aircraft, providing pilots and scheduling fights. At present, the company has 30 employees; 15 full-time and three part-time pilots with seven airplanes, up from four in 2013.
“Jetpool has grown every year, and been profitable since it began,” boasts Legvold. “Year-over-year we’ve seen a 35 percent growth in revenue. In the future, I see us holding to a minimum 20 percent growth rate.”
Legvold points out that safety is a core value of Jetpool, learning and adopting a mindset from its Fortune 500 clients on how to build a “culture of safety.” The company has earned an IS-BAO, an international certification for business aircraft operators similar to ISO 9000, becoming one of the first adopters of this certification.
Trust is another core tenet and a companion to safety for Jetpool clients.
“It’s different from commercial airlines where you don’t know who’s flying the plane and you’re not sure how well the plane was maintained or why there might be a maintenance issue delaying your flight,” says Legvold.
Legvold says the company gets to know its passengers over a period of years: “We know their habits and what they like so we can be better prepared and always ready to serve them. One client’s ‘few minutes’ might be an hour or so, while another client’s ‘few minutes’ might be 15 minutes. We’re always ready and operating on their time.”
He thinks that the company has the “right mix” of people working in maintenance, operations and scheduling to continue its expansion, perhaps into the Washington, D.C., market.
SmartSky Set to Launch
Stone and Legvold’s newest brainchild, SmartSky, will offer airborne connectivity with the same kind of service available in an office or home by connecting aircraft to ground antennas, rather than satellites in orbit, to allow for real-time sharing of data. SmartSky is scheduled for a beta-customer launch in late 2015, followed by a national commercial launch in 2016.
Stone says the impetus for the new venture originated from a Jetpool client: “We had a specific request for telecommunications connectivity, and when we looked at the options available, we found limited services available. So we set out on a quest, and SmartSky was born.”
SmartSky was incorporated in 2011. Stone takes primary responsibility as the new company’s president and director. The leadership team of Stone and his Jetpool founding partners Legvold and Sameit are rounded out by a fourth partner, Stan Eskridge, who served as Stone’s MBA business school coach, and is the company’s COO and a director.
“Particularly on a plane, everyone wants the same standard of connectivity they have everywhere else,” comments Stone. “The airlines have spent a lot of money to get to 3G, which is state-of-the-art for commercial planes. Unfortunately, that is like accepting a 3G level of performance on your cell phone while the rest of the world is becoming a 4G system.”
The 3G air connectivity standard for most commercial airlines leads to problems with speed and bandwidth, a function of the system which uses older technology or satellites in space.
“This is not an easy market to enter; there is so much noise in the market,” Stone points out. “We were able to acquire some patents and work on a ‘secret sauce’ that will allow us to offer a viable solution.”
The company’s initial plan was to offer 4G connectivity first to business aviation and later to commercial airlines, but, Stone says, “The airlines came to us and asked us to get to them sooner. We’re now involved in discussions with leading commercial airlines.
“The reason for the intense interest is clear—with the 4G connectivity experience, SmartSky will offer 10 times better than what you would get today,” continues Stone. “It’s the same as you would get in your home or office. You’ll be able to make video conference calls, download documents and watch movies.”
With its launch, SmartSky will be the first company in the U.S. that will have this combination of high bandwidth and low latency—or delay—for connectivity in the sky, says Stone.
Untangling the Regulation
“Nothing in aviation is simple,” Stone comments. “And starting SmartSky was a complicated business with the bureaucracy of the telecommunications industry and compliance requirements
“We realized very quickly that we needed telecommunications expertise,” says Stone. “We needed someone with an intimate knowledge of the marketplace. Haynes Griffin, our chairman and CEO, was the CEO of Vanguard Cellular (one of the co-owners of Cellular One), and the first chairman of the cellular industry association, and a mentor. We feel fortunate that he was interested in getting involved in our new venture.
“Haynes brought in other world-class experts, including former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, to help us with regulatory strategy. We needed a view of where the world is headed and so we added two Intel Corp. board members.”
SmartSky also needed to line up partners. It worked with Textron Aviation (owner of iconic brands Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft), Duncan Aviation, and DAC International as partners to help with the certification and installation of hardware, Satcom Direct as a subscription and customer support partner, and Harris Corporation as a radio development partner.
“We decided to keep our launch of the business under wraps until we could check the boxes on all the major risk items,” says Stone. “We made our first public announcement at beginning of October after working with our partners for more than a year, and working on the business for more than three years.”
Cost for SmartSky’s new service will be comparable to its main competitor’s cost, Stone says, and likely to be embraced by potential customers, hungry for some new options in air travel telecommunications. Potential competitor AT&T backed out of entering the air-to-ground telecommunications field in April, based on its decision to focus on other core parts of its business.
“We have this unique vantage point. The vision of the company is to transform aviation through disruptive communication,” says Stone. “We can give customers something they desperately need and keep innovating so we won’t be disrupted ourselves.”
SmartSky’s closest competitor Gogo has 2,500 subscribers, using just 4 MHz of bandwidth. In contrast, SmartSky will access 60 MHz of spectrum and a huge, patented 4G pipeline, boasts Stone.
“The potential market is huge—there are about 12,000 business jets in commercial aviation so there is plenty of untapped market,” says Stone.
Business growth is good at Jetpool and expected to be in demand at SmartSky. Legvold attributes their business success to “finding the right people to grow the company.”
“As an entrepreneur, it never seems as fast as you want it to go, but what we’ve accomplished over the past few years is extraordinary,” reflects Legvold.
“Our growth is also a story of embracing local entrepreneurial ventures,” adds Stone. “If you start one business, you are more likely to start another.
“And, if our business plan goes well, we may be the next Fortune 500 company.”
“We have the opportunity to build a new city—and that happens rarely in someone’s lifetime,” says Chase Boone Saunders, a Charlotte native and fifth generation North Carolinian talking about Charlotte’s resurgent destiny as a crossroads of commerce.
“Charlotte is a work-in-progress, an Information Age City ever creating its future by coupling a mid-East location astride pre-Columbian, Indian trade routes to the energy of her people.”
Charlotte is on the threshold of another economic wave driven by its strength and location at the center of the Carolinas and the East Coast. With over 900 foreign-owned firms, its primary economic sectors include energy, banking, health care, manufacturing and logistics.
For the past two decades, businesses have been relocating around the globe for less expensive labor. As those labor costs push toward an equilibrium, businesses—especially manufacturing entities—are working to reduce their next most expensive costs of doing business…shipping and delivery.
Combined Logistical Assets Offer New Opportunities
In order to reduce those costs, advanced manufacturing, adaptive manufacturing and distribution firms will locate their facilities close to global hubs for domestic and international commerce. With the Charlotte Douglas International Airport providing non-stop flights to most major domestic population centers with over 44 million passengers a year, and the Norfolk Southern Intermodal Center with its potential capacity of nearly 600,000 containers a year, the Charlotte region provides a premier location for global businesses.
What makes Charlotte unique is its combined access to great air service as well as great highways and railways. From Charlotte, businesses can choose to move their freight/goods through any of the four major deep-water ports of Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington and Norfolk. Having so many proximate choices will drive costs down as truckers, railroads, ports and shipping companies compete for their business.
Norfolk Southern Intermodal Center
One year ago, in December 2013, Norfolk Southern moved into the new Intermodal Center between runways at the south end of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CDIA). The new facility is located on 170 acres with 3 pad tracks totaling 13,225 feet and 8 support tracks totaling 24,810 feet; 1,328 parking spots on site; a present capacity of 200,000 lift containers; all within easy access to major interstates I-485, I-85 and I-77.
Norfolk Southern (NS) leased this land from CDIA with the option to purchase it and adjacent land for expanding intermodal activities from domestic as well as international trade.
Crescent Corridor Initiative
NS has targeted major resources toward a Crescent Corridor Initiative serving manufactured freight along the I-85, I-77, I-485, I-40 and I-81 corridors from Pennsylvania to Alabama. The Crescent Corridor, stretching along highways from Richmond, Va., to Birmingham, Ala., is a concentrated manufacturing region that produces over $1.3 trillion of our GDP each year.
This manufacturing output is expected to double or even triple in the next 50 years. More specifically, experts expect roughly 40 percent of initial containers transiting through our intermodal center will be from international trade, while the remaining 60 percent will result from its Crescent Corridor Initiative.
Location, Location, Location
According to Brookings researcher Adie Tomer, “Along the U.S. Atlantic Coast, there is a veritable arms race between ports to dredge their harbors, roll out new cranes and obtain a bigger slice of American logistics business. Ports from Miami to Boston are making major bets—often involving upwards of a billion dollars—that they’ll be winners in the new Panamax world.”
The inland port of Charlotte, with its combined assets of CDIA and the NS Intermodal Center, offer this region a huge opportunity. NS and CSX rails provide service to each of the four major southeast ports.
To make the most of its location at the logistical center of the Carolinas along the East Coast, Charlotte must step up its game with a masterplan to not just compete, but to become the premier inland port. Unfortunately, political battles have left its significant assets sitting in limbo without the benefit of local planning for competitive development while other cities successfully move forward to service the same traffic.
Charlotte is only 644 miles south of New York City,730 miles north of Miami, 756 miles southeast of Chicago, and 714 miles northeast of New Orleans. Charlotte also happens to be at the logistical center of the southeast ports: Wilmington (198 miles), Charleston (208 miles), Savannah (252 miles), and Norfolk (323 miles).
By locating in Charlotte, businesses can reach over 60 percent of the population of the United States and more than 60 percent of the nation’s industrial base within two hours’ flight time or one day’s delivery by motor freight, and still have easy access to shipping options in major deep-water southeast ports.
The Need for an Integrated Strategy
CDIA and the city of Charlotte have begun planning for development of nearly 6,500 acres surrounding the airport and intermodal center building water lines, sewers and roads in the area known as Dixie Berryhill at a cost of roughly $45 million as part of the city’s $816 million capital improvement plan paid for by the 7.25 percent property tax increase.
In addition, the area needs expanded electrical service and other utilities. An additional 6,000 acres adjacent to the airport property is also largely undeveloped and could be improved. CDIA should also seek to expand air freight traffic. Ranked 33rd in air cargo among U.S. airports, the city can’t act soon enough.
We Need to Learn from Other Communities
When considering options for further development around CDIA and the NS Intermodal Center, there are prime examples of similar developments that ought to be studied. Three such models for development are the Alliance Global Logistics Hub in Fort Worth, Tex., the Rickenbacker Global Logistics Park in Columbus, Ohio, and the CenterPoint Intermodal Center just outside Chicago in Joliet/Elwood, Ill.
Alliance Global Logistics Park has been developed just west of Dallas by H. Ross Perot and BNSF Railroad. It operates with a capacity of 600,000 containers per year with projected growth to nearly 1,000,000 lifts serving domestic and international trade. This facility serves both BNSF and Union Pacific rail lines.
Its highway connections lead to both Mexico and Canada. It was built adjacent to the Fort Worth Airport and supports air freight for corporate as well as military needs. It operates a free trade zone with on-site customs and border protection within its 17,000-acre development.
Rickenbacker Global Logistics Park encompasses 1,576 acres surrounding the Rickenbacker International Airport and a NS Intermodal Center. Located 12 miles southeast of downtown Columbus, it has easy access to I-270, I-70, and Highways 23 and 33. It handles more than 300,000 containers per year along with its free trade zone. It provides direct double-stack service as well as next-day rail service to and from the Norfolk port.
CenterPoint Intermodal Center is North America’s largest inland port just south of Chicago. Its master-planned facilities operate on about 6,500 acres at the center of I-55, I-80 and the rail facilities of BNSF and Union Pacific. It provides readily available and flexible space solutions, plus thousands of additional acres for development.
The land around CDIA and the NS Intermodal Center can be developed into the best inland port in the United States with the proper planning and execution. While primarily undeveloped, this region can learn from the experience of other parks and build a plan to develop this acreage to fill the growing needs of cargo and trade to domestic and international markets.
Leadership in a Changing World
Gaining competitive advantage is so incredibly difficult in this age of disruption, when business survival trumps business growth. But it makes it that much more important to take full advantage of our assets and to be prepared for and take advantage of any opportunities as they arise.
Disruption has shown us, if nothing else, that where one entity does not step up, there are many others that will. What are we doing with our assets?
We benefited mightily from business leaders in the Charlotte community who recognized early on, in 1999, the potential advantages of co-locating rail and air facilities for future prosperity. Their Advantage Carolinas plan was roundly lauded and integral to the establishment of the NS Intermodal Center.
Although the region’s corporate citizens and leadership may have changed complexion, economic experts continue to believe that the true path to economic enrichment for any community—the way to raise the productivity and prosperity for all—continues to be providing access to and promoting manufacturing and those commercial flows that stimulate economic activity.
Global Vision Leaders Group
In the absence of leadership from other sectors, a grass roots group of business leaders has come together under the leadership of Tony Zeiss, Chase Saunders, Michael Gallis, and John Galles to form the Global Vision Leaders Group which has already held four major global summit meetings as well as conducted its own research and findings from meetings with each of the southeast ports and representatives of the N.C. and S.C. Departments of Commerce.
Two expert analyses in the economic development arena were also drawn upon: The Metropolitan Revolution by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, and The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton.
South Carolina is wooing substantial business to its port and to its real estate along I-85, most notably, the BMW plant in Greenville and Boeing in Charleston. Governor Nikki Haley is all about economic development leading the state’s charge in one unified vision to develop the state as an economic powerhouse. South Carolina wants CDIA and intermodal centers to be major players in this strategy.
Even the Port of Savannah in Georgia has a strong mission that very purposefully includes a relationship with the intermodal center and CDIA. This region is capable of becoming one of the most important hubs for global trade and commerce, yet local officials are not moving with all deliberate haste.
Hopefully, as the new Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina gets established, they will also be engaged with Charlotte and surrounding regions, even those across state lines.
Collectively, the Carolinas can become a major relocation region for three targeted groups that should be recruited: (1) Advanced and Adaptive Manufacturing that will seek to operate closer to major distribution centers; (2) International companies seeking to establish operations inside the domestic markets in the U.S.; and (3) Re-shoring companies that will return to the U.S. as wages reach a great equilibrium and as fewer workers are required.
We have the opportunity and the responsibility to exhibit a NEW Advantage Carolinas plan for businesses seeking the best location near a logistical center with great distribution capacities.
That plan can be even more successful if developed for the entire Carolinas region—one that is inclusive and integrates assets with manufacturing facilities in addition to grain, livestock and raw materials—and fully utilizes the region’s assets in a truly integrated fashion for the benefit and prosperity of all.
Improving numbers aren’t the only encouraging sign. In January 2014, Premier Sotheby’s International Realty officially opened in
Their SouthPark office is the first in
In 2013, the company recorded sales volume of $2.8 billion in more than 3,660 closed sales, an increase of 22 percent and 20 percent year over year, respectively.
With 24 locations throughout
Premier Sotheby’s International Realty is the largest
The company’s association with the reputation and heritage of a brand like Sotheby’s is a definer for their business says Judy Green, president and CEO.
“Just as Sotheby’s Auction House is known globally as a source for the world’s most valuable possessions and for the impeccable service it provides to its clients, Sotheby’s International Realty is known for the unique and distinctive properties it represents and the exceptional service it provides to its clients,” says Green. “Premier Sotheby’s International Realty continues that tradition of extraordinary service in
A Forceful Presence
Judy Green, president and CEO of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty, has been a force in the luxury real estate market for decades. Starting with a family construction and real estate business she began with her husband, Green has worked for over 30 years with realty firms, often in key executive positions.
She previously ran the Sotheby’s International Realty franchise for the Sarasota-Manatee,
“Following our vision, we have become the market leaders in the markets we serve,” says
According to Green, the company’s expansion into
The mountain community, represented by Premier Sotheby’s International Realty, is a short drive from
“The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce is doing an extraordinary job of selling the area to
“Our company does a relocation tour for businesses looking at the area, telling them about the quality of life
“And people are responding. The theme I hear is that
Green has an understanding of housing needs across all income spectrums that influences and enhances her business philosophy at Premier Sotheby’s International Realty. “It would be safe to say that the majority of properties we represent are high end,” explains Green. “Probably the median sales price of a property represented by this office is $700,000, but we represent properties less than that too.
“Right now, we have a one bedroom loft in
“When you walk into Tiffany & Co. you can buy a $150 charm or a $50,000 bracelet, but with either purchase, Tiffany will give you the prestigious packaging and exceptional service synonymous with the brand. That’s what Premier Sotheby’s International Realty is about. We’re inviting to everyone, so whether it’s a $200,000 home or a $7 million home, we give everyone the extraordinary service that’s part of our brand.”
Premier Sotheby’s International Realty and the Sotheby’s International Realty global network are also an acknowledged source for some of the most distinctive properties available anywhere.
Recent notable sales for the Sotheby’s International Realty network include a $44 million sale in
Global and Unique
Historic properties is considered a lifestyle category for Sotheby’s International Realty and their affiliates. In addition to price range and location, the company’s website allows clients to search for properties under lifestyle categories including: waterfront, skiing, equestrian, ranch and farm, golf and country club, and vineyards and wineries.
The Sotheby’s website is a popular one. With 90 million property views annually—1 million in July 2014 alone—the website can be viewed in 15 languages and 40 currencies. User viewing averages a focused 12 minutes.
“The lifestyle search is unique,” says Green. “So if you are looking for a waterfront property in the $2-3 million price range, you could see a property on
But the company didn’t rely on their widespread recognition alone when entering the
“The concept of The Premier Community Foundation relates directly to what we do as a company,” she explains. “We work relentlessly to help our customers achieve their real estate goals. By comparison, the foundation will help build stronger communities for children and families in our markets through the most effective use of funding dollars, because we know that home is where the heart is.
“The projects that The Premier Community Foundation selects for funding won’t always focus on raising money,” notes Green. “Some will focus on raising awareness around important causes. But in every case, foundation-funded projects will ultimately be about supporting and bolstering children and families in communities throughout our footprint.”
The Premier Community Foundation allows our broker associates to support whatever local charity they find important. The foundation invites community groups and tax-exempt entities to apply for various forms of support depending on their need.
“Throughout our respective histories, our company has made giving back to our communities a priority,” Green avers. “Today, as a successful and larger organization, Premier Sotheby’s International Realty further embraces our responsibility to leave situations better than we found them. By forming The Premier Community Foundation, we have solidified the ability to leverage our knowledge and resources to ensure healthy, vibrant communities for years to come.”
“So whether it’s Levine Children’s Hospital or Second Harvest Food Bank or A Child’s Place, all the money we raise here will stay in this community. Our first event was a great one. We’re going to make it an annual one.”
Penetrating the Marketplace
Premier Sotheby’s International Realty is pleased with the welcome they’ve received in
The positive response has led to plans for growth. The SouthPark office has 30 associates currently but Green expects them to double the number by year end 2015. The SouthPark office serves communities in Charlotte, Gaston and Union counties as well as the
To serve areas North, Premier Sotheby’s International Realty’s
And beyond that? “Look for us to keep expanding,” says Green.
Green admits that outside forces are a major factor in the health of the real estate market. “Mortgage rates are a huge indicator,” she explains. “And they’re still at an all-time low. But even when rates go back up, people are still going to buy real estate. Home ownership is a long-term wealth builder and I don’t think that will ever change. Real estate remains a smart investment.”
Right now Green says they’re seeing property on the market capture full asking price and more. She’s also noticed that more people want a home that’s move-in ready, a trend she thinks will grow as more millennials enter the market.
“Millennials want it now,” says Green. “They also want to live close to work. Uptown, Plaza-Midwood and NoDa would all be wise areas for investment.”
Green says out-of-area investors have also shaped the
“They’re buying properties that fit those parameters sight unseen as cash deals that close quickly. We’re also seeing individuals who are buying homes as an investment and using them as property management.
“There will always be people relocating or moving up or downsizing,” Green continues. “That’s always been the case. But when the market corrected a few years back, some people found their homes had greatly devalued. Now that those values are coming back, some people have decided that now is the time to sell.”
Along with improvements in the market in general, the luxury market has also improved. “In 2012, Premier Sotheby’s International Realty had 57 homes under contract valued at over $500,000,” Green says. “In 2014, we had 110 in the immediate
A well-respected global brand and a market comeback certainly contribute to success in a new market but Green sums it up simply. “It comes down to listening to what people want, learning to serve the needs of our customer and giving back to the community we serve,” Green explains, “and to always exceed our customer’s expectations.”
Kenneth and Sam Ayers knew a lot about buildings long before they got into the cleaning and maintenance business. Both trained engineers, the father and son duo began working together in 1999 when Kenneth joined his father in his custom home building business in
In 2006, they decided to diversify into building maintenance, buying a franchise of Kansas City-based City Wide Maintenance. By 2008, they had City Wide Maintenance of Charlotte up and running, covering the
Timing could not have been more fortuitous. “God was looking out for us,” says Sam. The construction industry, among the hardest hit by the 2008-2009 economic recession, was just beginning to reel from the loss of business that would continue to decline over the next few years.
“We had been thinking about integrating vertically, opening a cabinet ship,” contributes Kenneth, “but were lucky to get out of the building industry when we did and into a recession-resistant business.
The Cleaning Solution
City Wide Maintenance of Charlotte is a building maintenance management company that specializes in janitorial and maintenance services primarily for commercial buildings.
“Working through our network of service partners, we help folks that outsource their cleaning and maintenance needs,” explains Kenneth. “Anything that makes a building and property look better, we can do.”
Each City Wide customer utilizes janitorial services and can access as many as 20 other services as needed, including painting and dry wall repair, parking lot services such as asphalt sealing and striping, lawn care, window washing, carpet cleaning, lighting services, floor refinishing, concrete coating, pest control, pressure washing, carpet and tile installation, restroom remodeling, handyman services, picture hanging, and more.
City Wide maintains numerous types of facilities from single and multi-tenant commercial businesses to medical offices, schools and faith-based organizations. “Our target building is a 25,000-square-feet, single tenant owner-occupied building,” says Kenneth.
Area customers include Britax, with its 500,000 square feet of building space, Tindol Ford, several Charlotte Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Associates (CEENTA) locations, Precision Steel Warehouse, Piedmont Plastics, US Leisure, The Goddard School, and Dilworth Child Development Center, to name a few.
“By partnering (sub-contracting) with small to mid-sized companies that do not have their own sales and management teams in place, we are able to provide services to customers and deliver professional management of each vendor,” says Kenneth. “It’s a win-win-win for us, for the contractors who need help in developing business, and for the customers who no longer need to manage building maintenance. It’s also a huge benefit in terms of convenience, efficiency, and financial commitment.”
“We got interested in this business because our background was in construction and the business model of City Wide was similar to what we were used to in the building business,” shares Sam. “Plus, one of the appeals of this was that it is, if not recession-proof, recession-resistant.”
City Wide Maintenance, the parent company, offers franchises in the 76 largest markets in the
Indeed, City Wide Maintenance of Charlotte has averaged annual growth of over 52 percent each year since 2009, so much so that Kenneth and Sam are willing to entertain the possibility of acquiring another market, although they insist that the
“Our 10-year goal is to continue to experience the growth we’ve achieved during the past several years,” says Kenneth.
The Father-and-Son Connection
City Wide Maintenance was started in 1961 by Frank Oddo in
Then City Wide provides leadership, mentoring and business development to ensure that its contractors provide seamless service to clients. In 2001, the company began franchising its concept and today there are 40 City Wide franchises around the country.
Kenneth and Sam both say that the fact that City Wide itself is a father-and-son venture helped to bring them into the franchise fold.
Kenneth says City Wide Maintenance of Charlotte mutually benefits from relationships with other City Wide franchises, particularly along the I-85 corridor, such as those in the Research Triangle, Greenville/Spartanburg and
“We work closely with them, sometimes talking weekly about challenges and opportunities. We also partner with them to share customers who have buildings in different markets,” says Kenneth. “We’re prospecting one right now from a
In some ways, the company operates more as a family business than a typical franchise.
“Above and beyond the janitorial services, we have autonomy to decide what we do,” says Kenneth. “In our business model, the core of the business is the janitorial and represents 75 to 80 percent of our revenue. That leaves room for us to decide what additional services to provide and how to distinguish ourselves.
“Some of that is dictated by geography. For instance, we don’t do a lot of snow removal.”
Work with the customer begins with a detailed needs analysis, describes Kenneth. That is followed by identifying the most appropriate service partners for the work involved, determined by expertise and geographic location.
“Most importantly,” says Kenneth, “each customer is provided with support from a designated facilities service manager with whom they can communicate and who will be watchful of current and upcoming needs. The facilities service managers catch things before they become big problems—for instance, frayed or damaged carpet.”
“Customers like to have someone they trust—someone that already knows the building—to call upon,” adds Sam. “This is a huge service to companies that, in many cases, have office managers trying to keep track of the needs of a huge building. Our strengths are the time savings we offer through managing services and the ability to put the right people on the job.”
City Wide boasts a retention rate of over 90 percent according to Kenneth.
“We mostly work with service companies that don’t have the staff, time or expertise to go out and market their services and negotiate contracts,” explains Kenneth. “We become their sales team and are a catalyst for their growth. A lot of these companies may not exist or be at the size they are without us.
“We feel responsible, in part, for the 125 employees that are associated with our service contractors who specialize in all the areas we might be called into.”
Since contractors are always looking for business and City Wide is always looking for contractors, the company holds an open meeting for potential contractors every four weeks or so. “We also run ads on Craigslist and get recommendations from existing contractors,” says Sam.
City Wide requires that the contractors conduct full background checks on their employees and provide that information to City Wide management. “So many people reach out to us,” says Kenneth. “We have to be very aware of their capabilities. We can’t just put anyone in one of our buildings.”
“We’re pretty proud of our Performance Plus Program,” admits Kenneth. The proprietary program outlines six steps and strategies to optimize cleaning time and focuses on preemptively attacking dirt before it comes into the building. With a commitment towards indoor air quality, the company uses high efficiency chemicals and equipment to ensure a deep clean.
City Wide considers itself to be environmentally friendly. “We don’t use toxic chemicals,” states Sam. “Everything we do is green where applicable,” says Kenneth. “All of our cleaners are green-sealed certified.” Kenneth says that they are also careful to train all workers in the proper use of chemicals and how and where to dispose of chemicals and dirty water.
The company is also guided by state regulations and OSHA requirements, particularly in settings such as schools, food distribution areas, day care centers, and ambulatory surgery centers. For instance, in day care centers, there are requirements regarding carpet cleaning, air returns and vents, and how toys are cleaned. With food distribution, there are requirements around the use of safe disinfectant cleaners. Regulations also are applied for personal protection equipment, such as steel toed shoes and safety glasses, in certain environments.
All in the Family
City Wide Maintenance of Charlotte has six management employees divided between sales associates, facility service managers (FSMs), and operations support staff. Each FSM is responsible for a number of buildings and manages a rotating schedule for visits to the property. Sam also serves as an FSM. Kenneth’s wife Catherine serves as the company’s part-time financial coordinator.
“Our office doesn’t get a lot of telephone calls; not a lot of people knocking on the door,” says Sam. Existing customers will call Kenneth, me, or their FSM directly. For prospective customers, we do the calling and door-knocking.”
“A lot of our efforts are simply out on foot canvassing buildings, stopping by or making calls and sending emails to building owners or tenants,” remarks Kenneth. “Often information regarding ownership or property management will be posted on the door.”
City Wide staff is constantly reviewing Google maps and drilling down into
City Wide has established specific metrics for their outreach, aiming at 2,000 contacts or “touches” each month. Typically, that number of contacts will generate three to five new customers. New buildings are steadily coming onto the
A native of
Over time, he grew tired of working with large companies and went full-time into the home construction industry in 1991 where he remained until the City Wide opportunity presented itself. Commuting from
Sam’s eventual retirement will be a real issue for Kenneth and the business, and the pair are beginning to work on a succession plan. “Every business partner has to plan on how to replace himself,” remarks Sam.
“Being involved in a 24/7 business means occasionally getting calls during the night. Fortunately, we have people out at night who can handle most issues,” says Kenneth. “Sometimes Sam and I get calls, but unless there is a true complaint or problem, we’re not as involved at night.”
Asked if they have any horror stories, Sam recalls, “The worst thing that has happened was one of our contractors was on his way to clean a building in
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Kenneth says nodding. “The only times cleaning could not be done on schedule was due to inclement weather.”
Overall, Kenneth and Sam say they have enjoyed working together and have managed the inherent kinks of working alongside family members.
“The great thing about it is that I know I can trust him at all times; I don’t have to worry about it,” says Kenneth.
“We’ve been working together now for 15 years and we haven’t choked or kicked one another,” laughs Sam. “It wouldn’t work with every father and son but we’ve managed to get along so far and it’s working out well.”
For most people, turning a hobby into a career is nothing more than a dream, but for one entrepreneur, it has become a reality.
Greg Higgs, founder and owner of Fab Fours, Inc., located in
“Although I thought I was heading for
“At the same time, I started writing a business plan for starting a retail off-road shop in the U.S. Providentially, circumstances came together and I met an investor, a fellow Texan—as I am from
After only three months working in
He continues, “We got that shop in
Higgs readily admits that he’s always had a fascination with bumpers. He decided to begin importing them from a manufacturer he found in
“Our supplier eventually fell through,” remarks Higgs, “but the die was already cast in my mind. I realized I could live anywhere and use drop shipping to get my products out.
“So, we moved to
“We wanted to become a nationwide, full-fledged bumper provider from the start. With that, the idea was ‘No constraints.’ If we’re going to use drop-ship manufacturers, we need to have the best manufacturers in the country. This led to having suppliers in
At the same time, Higgs’ role was focused on the sales and marketing side of things. He drove from city to city, hauling a trailer full of products, and each time he would arrive in a new place, he would pull out the Yellow Pages to look for truck and vehicle accessory shops. Door to door, he would bring proprietors out to see the products, and ultimately, convince them to do a buy-in, leading to steady growth.
“We started with a direct-to-retail market,” says Higgs, “but in early 2006, beginning with the SEMA show, the industry standard for our products, everything changed. At that time, we virtually didn’t exist. We had no phone number, no website, nothing. But starting in 2006, you could actually buy something direct from Fab Fours, and our revenue was something like $400,000.
“From ’06, ’07, ’08, we made the Inc. 500 with revenues around the $2.5 million mark,” continues Higgs. “So, selling was not the problem as we were keeping our promises of quality and consistency, which is a concern in this market.”
Higgs explains that many people who go into the after-market vehicle parts industry are enthusiasts, much like himself. Higgs believes that many of these enthusiasts are unprepared to handle the challenges that come along with growing such a business.
“That typical path begins by making parts on the side or tweaking parts until reaching a point where an enthusiast can quit their day job and become a small business owner,” says Higgs. “And then they grow that until they peak where their personal objectives have been met, but the next evolution of the business surpasses their finances, personal ability, and so on. This is why there are many competitors, but few rivals to Fab Fours.”
He continues, “My father started his own business with two other guys with $5,000 apiece in the oil and gas industry. That company now makes over $1 billion annually, so I lived through the right way to grow a company.”
The Path to Success
Fab Fours’ value proposition is “Quality…Delivered On Time,” but challenges at the
As Higgs notes, “It was still small job shops we relied on, and the quality we demanded was greater than the level they were capable of producing. The shops that could make a bumper could also make a riding mower deck or an electrical box housing. Those are parts where no one cares if they have slight defects or scratches.”
Unfortunately, Higgs says, many in the enthusiast community are all too familiar with the grainy, difficult-to-read instruction manuals, missing bolts, and parts that don’t fit that arrive three-to-five weeks later than the customer expected.
“We decided we were going to try to change this expectation. We decided to place a strong emphasis on quality parts delivered on time. Today, if you want a car seat, you can go out right now and buy a car seat from numerous places. In my industry, it’s not like that.
“Our community is small and fragmented. If you want a premium bumper, you have to order from a specialized company. However, getting a quality bumper on time is important, and we weren’t able to produce the quality we wanted in
He continues, “We’re like a Louis Vuitton purse for a guy. When we construct a bumper that you’re installing onto your pride and joy, a bumper you’re spending thousands of dollars on, it has to be perfect. So, to get that quality, we had to bring the parts to us, which was unraveling the strategy of having distant manufacturers. Now it was becoming a massive burden. The part that was made in
In order to combat this problem and further expand, Higgs reached out to individuals involved in economic development in
Over time, Higgs began feeling as though
“Our initial location in the greater
The decision was then made to move to
“This facility is 33,000 square feet and all production, from 2010 to present, and what will be all of 2015, was and will be out of this facility. However, we own a building that is about 12 miles from here that is 140,000 square feet.”
Higgs continues, “Right now, we’re using that location for sales and marketing, but it will be used for manufacturing. This location will continue to operate, possibly as an aluminum plant, as we continue to diversify our product line to include both steel and aluminum items.
“Where this building will peak at about 18 to 22 million in capacity, the new building should be good for about 85 to possibly 100 million in capacity. My view is, if the new building can get us to 100 million, and our current location can produce 20 million, that’s probably the limit that we would want to make in this region anyway.
“By the time we hit that, the other building will be our headquarters, but we’d then like to expand outside of the
Driving Into the Future
Fab Fours’ front winch bumpers are designed to be the ultimate in functionally stylish front end protection. These direct bolt-on bumpers require no cutting, grinding or welding. An engineered winch mount conceals the winch in the bumper. Fab Fours’ rear bumpers come with a variety of options including integrated receivers, tire carriers, shackle mounts, and more.
Fab Fours insists on quality construction formed and welded precisely—for example bumper tire carriers have Fab Fours’ signature “knife edge” finish. Although they are best known for their quality bumpers, Fab Fours manufactures a wide variety of vehicle accessories for the automotive aftermarket. Products come with a lifetime warranty on structure.
Regarding what the future holds for Fab Fours, Higgs says, “Right now, bumpers are the driving force, they’re what we’re synonymous with. However, starting about 18 months ago, our line did expand to include peripheral steel accessories. When you look at the outside of a vehicle, for example a super-duty truck, there’s the front and back bumpers, side steps, a headache rack, and a roof rack. So, basically anything that you can bolt to the outside to change the look and function, we’ve now hit all of those elements.
“In addition, our flagship bumper is still the most expensive on the market, but we’ve also introduced a less-expensive model that’s well suited to fleets.”
Higgs also notes that the company has turned to wholesale distribution to gain an edge.
“Because we built our brand through organic retail customers, it’s become difficult to travel far to find new customers as well as logistically challenging to ship. This led our company to become a pioneer in wholesale distribution for bumpers.
“While wholesale distribution has been around in the aftermarket industry, it’s mainly been used for small parts. Think about this…one of our steel bumpers, when packaged, weighs about 400 pounds and is about the size of a refrigerator. Through the wholesalers, anywhere in
“In the end, we aim to be the brand in the automotive aftermarket that truck and off-road enthusiasts turn to above all others. As we’re bolting together our plan, we also plan to pursue commercial, military, and international. As long as we stick to delivering quality products on time, I’m confident that we’ll get there.”
When General Manager Joey Profeta greets you at The Palm in
A 20-year veteran of The Palm, Profeta knows many of his customers by name, knows about their family, and knows what they like to eat and drink. It’s all part of the culture of a family-owned business started in
But while the scope of The Palm has grown since 1926, the key values that have contributed to the company’s success haven’t changed—a commitment to outstanding food, exemplary service, and a culture built on hospitality, generosity, and a sense of family.
Third Generation Family Business
As the story goes, John and Pio wanted to name their new restaurant after their hometown of
Because The Palm was located near the headquarters of newspaper cartoon distributor King Features Syndicate, it was frequented by many of the artists. So in trade for their meals, the artists would draw their creations on the walls, and the walls of that original location still feature the faces of Popeye, Batman, Beetle Bailey, and the characters from “A Family Circus.”
The tradition of decorating the walls with caricatures has continued over the years. Each new restaurant gets 200 to 300 likenesses of local notables on the walls and new caricatures of regular customers and local celebrities are added as time goes by to keep the walls updated and current. Many of the caricatures are personally autographed.
Ironically, while The Palm is today best known for its steaks, the original Palm didn’t even have steak on the menu. Primarily a traditional Italian restaurant, if a customer asked for steak, John Ganzi would run to a nearby butcher to buy a steak to cook to order. In time, steaks did become a regular menu item.
In the 1940s, Walter Ganzi and Bruno Bozzi took over the restaurant from their fathers; and in the early 1960s, their sons, Wally Ganzi and Bruce Bozzi Sr. began working at The Palm. In the late 1960s, Walter and Bruno retired from the business, handing the leadership over to Wally and Bruce.
When George H.W. Bush was in
In 2011, the Palm Restaurant Group undertook a brand refresh which included tableware, uniforms, signage, and an updated visual identity manifested in a new website and a new ad campaign. People did not know the chain of eateries were family-owned—they had been communicating a very corporate vibe that didn’t jibe with the restaurant’s history or roots.
A number of menu changes were made to coincide with the brand refresh.
Menus emphasize “family recipes” and there is a greater focus on making an emotional connection with loyal customers and taking much greater advantage of a rick family history. So To date, the refresh seems successful—a sign that the rewards can be rich for investment in thoughtful design.
The Palm’s growth led to
“The Palm is all I know,” says Profeta, who has managed the Charlotte Palm for almost 10 years. “My career started in the kitchens. I’m also Italian-American, so this place certainly has a special place in my heart. I love The Palm. I love the family. I love the culture. I love the business.”
A native of
In 1999, he was promoted to executive chef in
“I always said that being a chef is a very young man’s game, and after almost 10 years of that hot and sweaty work it was time for me to take a look at what was next,” says Profeta. “I really enjoyed the business end—the hospitality, the guests, and the people. So from that standpoint, it was a very easy transition to the dining room.”
Profeta had been in
“Fortunately, having that experience in the kitchen allowed me enough time to figure out what I was doing in the front of the house,” says Profeta. “There aren’t a lot of people in this business that have experience in both the kitchen and the dining room.”
“I’ve also been more than blessed with the team here,” continues Profeta. “The people that work for The Palm are truly amazing. I just started my 10th year at this location and all of my chefs and managers are the same except for one. My executive chef has been here about 12-13 years. My assistant general manager has been with The Palm for 12 years. Our entire morning kitchen crew has been here 15-plus years. I would bet that half of our hourly staff has been here longer than me. That’s simply unheard of in this business.”
While Profeta says their goal is to serve great food and provide exceptional service, he adds you could also make that same statement about many other fine dining steakhouses in
“I truly believe that the only thing that separates us from any other restaurant is our ability to build relationships,” offers Profeta. “I work at that; I take pride in that; and I enjoy that. I want to get to know you, your family, where you work, how many kids you have, your favorite table, and your favorite drink. I want you to become an extension of my family.”
Helping Profeta and his team accomplish those goals are internal information systems that keep track of customer likes, dislikes and preferences. The information is provided to servers as well as management to help the teams provide Palm customers with the best, most personalized experience possible.
The Palm also has one of the most successful loyalty reward programs in the restaurant business, their 837 Club. Profeta says he often sees patrons arguing over who gets to pay the bill, since if you pay the bill you get the 837 Club points added to your account.
The caricatures themselves are another way The Palm rewards the loyalty of their best customers, by offering the opportunity to have their likeness placed on the wall. While some patrons decline the offer, most accept and often ask to be seated near their picture when dining, especially when they are entertaining.
The Charlotte Palm also benefits from its longevity, arriving on the scene before many of its current competitors like Del Frisco’s and Ruth Chris. Because of the customer loyalty that has been built over those years, Profeta says a new generation of
“We often hear people say their father introduced them to The Palm in
A Changing Landscape
In recent years
He believes the arrival and maturation of
With the price of prime beef on the rise due to supply constraints, every restaurant is trying to find other things to put on the menu. And while there is a trend towards more seafood as customers try to make healthier choices, the vast majority of The Palm’s customers still want a big steak, so they must find the right balance on price.
“We certainly aren’t the cheapest in town, but we don’t want to be the most expensive in town either,” says Profeta. “We also don’t want to change the quality, and we still will always serve a huge steak.”
Since the Great Recession of 2008-2009, Profeta acknowledges that business dining and entertainment practices have changed and will probably never be the same again.
“I don’t think there are many employees that still have the freedom of the unlimited expense account,” admits Profeta. “But I actually think that makes for a stronger, more sustainable business. I would rather have them come in here and feel good about what they spent and come back again in a month, as opposed to only being able to come once a year.”
Instead of expanding to new cities, in recent years, The Palm has turned its attention more toward its existing locations. Should an older facility be renovated, or should it be relocated to a new site altogether? In
Technology is also changing the way restaurants do business, particularly with the advent of Web-based reservation systems like Open Table. Profeta says he is amazed how many reservations are booked on the Web via Open Table or at ThePalm.com.
“Open Table really helps us promote our business,” says Profeta. “People can jump on the Web and search for what’s open in the next hour in
But he says managing the reliability of that online reservation can be a challenge. While people who have called to make a reservation will usually call back to advise of a change in plans or a reduction in the number of diners, he says those who reserve on the Web seem to be less likely to advise of changes, making it more difficult for the restaurant to adapt to the change and plan accordingly.
Profeta also thinks it won’t be too many years before servers will be using handheld devices to take orders and automatically send that order back to the kitchen. Upcoming rules that will require all credit card swipes to be done in the presence of the customer will likely mandate some sort of mobile terminal that allows the server to process such transactions at the customer’s table.
While the restaurant landscape is always evolving, Profeta says treating his employees and customers like family will never change. Whether it’s a “family meal” for all employees prior to the start of the evening shift, or a free turkey for each team member to take home at Thanksgiving, he says preserving The Palm’s culture is a top priority.
“I’ll never take my eye off of that prize, because I think that is what has allowed us to stay so competitive for so long,” he concludes. “There are so many restaurants that people pass by when they choose to go to The Palm, so building relationships is something that we absolutely must continue to do better than anybody else.”
“If you do the math, WTVI celebrates 50 years of service to this region in 2015. And that really is what public television is all about…it’s about service and commitment to a region,” says Amy Burkett, WTVI’s general manager and host of the “Carolina Impact” program.
“I’ve been in television for nearly 25 years so far,” says Burkett. “I spent nine years in commercial television, I spent 14 years at a public television station in
WTVI, virtual channel 42 (VHF digital channel 11) and cable channel 4,5 or 9 in the
WTVI was originally owned by the Mecklenberg County Board of Education, first signing on the air in August 1965 as an instructional television station with programming meant to be viewed in classrooms. The WTVI call letters stood for tele, vision and information.
In 1982, WTVI’s license was transferred to an agency created by the school system and the county—the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Broadcasting Authority—turning the station into a community-owned entity.
For over two decades WTVI served the community’s needs, but beginning in 2004, revenues began to decline. The station cut back on more well-known PBS programs in favor of “alternative” shows, but after several years it was in trouble. By mid-June 2011, its long-term operation was questionable.
“Of course, after the economy went south in 2008, the ensuing years were challenging for nearly every broadcaster, including WTVI,” acknowledges Burkett.
She explains, “There’s no doubt that we faced some challenges. In a nutshell, WTVI was having a hard time meeting its budget and would have gone dark in 2012 had
Approved by the Federal Communications Commission, the acquisition of WTVI was completed by July 2012. As a result, WTVI became an educational licensee for the second time in its history and, at the time, one of seven full-time PBS member stations to be operated by a community college.
“Afterward, the former general manager retired, and CPCC conducted a national search for a replacement,” continues Burkett. “That’s where I came in. I was chosen to take the station in a little bit of a different direction. In the 16 months that I’ve been in the
WTVI has since brought back familiar PBS shows such as Downton Abbey, Nova and Nature to the schedule. Among its original shows and documentaries are Carolina Business Review, Carolina Impact, Off the Record, Charlotte Cooks, Job Ready, International Success, and Trail of History.
It reaches more than 1.1 million households in its 13-county service area in both North and
Showing and Doing
“We recently developed a tagline,” says Burkett, “‘We tell your stories, in your community, because we’re your WTVI PBS Charlotte.’ And while you can watch a multitude of cable and satellite channels, along with other public broadcasting stations, there is only one public television station serving this 13-county region, and that’s WTVI.”
“For example, Beverly Dorn-Steele, our director of educational services and community engagement, does a terrific amount of outreach including the literacy programs that she advocates and participates in—and that’s not happening at the other stations because they aren’t located here.
“In addition, we’ve enhanced the educational role of the station. Last year, we launched our STEM Awards to recognize terrific teens and teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, which is a great collaboration with CPCC and their STEM Program. They were the judges and we put on the program. We were able to recognize young people in 11 different categories, and that was an honor.
“We want to help young people see that there are a lot of jobs out there that go unfilled. In fact, last year, over 600,000 STEM jobs went unfilled because students didn’t have the technical training that an educational institution such as CPCC offers. WTVI is also working with CPCC to create an associate’s degree program in digital media studies.
“We also launched a news magazine show called “Carolina Impact” last year,” continues Burkett, “that tells the stories of this region on a weekly basis. Each week, we’re focusing on the issues, people and places that impact this region, and that’s once again all about service. So what we’ve developed over the last 16 months is a service-to-success model. The greater we serve this region, the more support we receive, and together, we’re all more successful.
“PBS stands for public broadcasting system, so it’s not a network,” Burkett is quick to point out. “Whereas a major network affiliate will broadcast network programming at certain times on certain days, we have more flexibility to broadcast programming on our schedule.
“The 150 or so independent PBS affiliates across the country carry Nature, Nova, Antiques Roadshow and Downton Abbey, for example, but we have some freedom as to when we can air these PBS programs. And we are careful to differentiate our programming so that you aren’t watching the same programs as on the other public stations in the area.
“Five nights a week, “Burkett says, “our programming is very different than the other two public broadcasting stations in the
See More Good Stuff, Really
Dorn-Steele, a 33-year veteran of WTVI, is accustomed to the spotlight as the host of WTVI’s “Ms. Beverly and Seemore Goodstuff.” But she’s also accustomed to lending her hand in the
Dorn-Steele explains, “I ended up here at WTVI quite by accident. I had applied to the school board in
“From there, I just worked my way up. I’ve learned everything from production to finance to promotions. Over time, I moved from the production side of things to the engagement and community outreach side of things.”
Burkette adds, “I like to call
“One thing I like,” Dorn-Steele remarks, “is that, for me, every day is different. Some days, at least twice a week, I’ll be out in the community conducting workshops with childcare providers, educators and parents on how they can use the power of PBS kids programming in their curriculums. These workshops can range anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours in length.
“We also provide curriculum guides that center around specific themes. For example, we have a Curious George guide that deals with science, and we’ll conduct a workshop with science teachers that want to use Curious George in their curriculums. Also, all of our guides do meet the North Carolina CORE standard, so educators really embrace the use of public television.”
Dorn-Steele continues, “We also have adult programming and documentaries where we might have a preview screening and invite community members or a targeted organization. Then, we may have a dialogue or panel or special guest to engage the group to take action.
“This past summer we conducted the ‘Cyber Chase Summer Challenge,’ where kids around the country were challenged to come up with their own math games. WTVI worked with the Johnston YMCA, and they created three games, and two of those games came in first and second place in this national contest.”
“Our kids are smart in
“Other television stations don’t have that kind of connection with people like we’re able to have here. In addition,
Beyond Public Broadcasting
Dorn-Steele and Burkett also discuss how they love the chance to connect with and empower
Dorn-Steele says, “Another great example of the educational outreach that we’re involved in is the ‘Martha Speaks Reading Buddies’ project, where we partnered with one of the area’s lowest-ranking elementary schools to pair second and third graders with kindergarteners and first graders. ‘Martha Speaks’ is about a dog that swallows a can of alphabet soup, and when he speaks, he introduces a new vocabulary word.
“It just blew my mind, watching these kids after the show, especially on parents’ night. ‘Oh, I recognize that word. Do you want to hear me use it in a sentence?!’ It was phenomenal.”
Burkett follows up, “Community engagement is one of the things that powers public media, and we just love to be a part of it.”
Ultimately responsible for operations of the station, Burkett has an impressive array of experience on which to draw. “I have a background in a little bit of everything in television including programming, fundraising and production,” she says modestly.
She grew up a small
“I learned how to do everything,” she remembers, including anchoring the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts.” She moved on to other positions in
“At WTVI, I also host our ‘Carolina Impact’ show while working on documentaries,” she says. Like Dorn-Steele, Burkett enjoys the variety of activities her job entails. “So, my day could start out with a budget meeting, I could go on a fundraising breakfast or luncheon, and follow it up by hosting an education summit,” she describes.
“I also serve as a board member on the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, so I’ve got a little bit of everything going on, but all of this allows me to get to know the
WTVI also has significant offerings apart from public broadcasting. Burkett says, “Production services are a big part of what we do. People can hire their public television service for a commercial or for a video, for example.
“I don’t think anyone tells stories like your public television station,” touts Burkett with pride. “So, if you’re looking for something to put on your website to connect the dots, we’re available.
“We had the good fortune to partner with Charlotte Works and the Centralina Workforce Development Board last year to create some videos showing how STEM fields are important for young people. That was a great collaboration, producing stories that are posted on various websites that educate and inspire others as to where the jobs are for the future.
“We strive to provide unique, engaging, educational, and entertaining local programming. We also seek out unique talent within the
At any point in time, 25 to 37 percent, or more than one in four people in the United States are dealing with mental illness, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“It can—and likely will—happen to anyone during the course of their life,” says Peggy Terhune, Ph.D., CEO of Albemarle-based Monarch, which offers behavioral health services.
This statistic totally disrespects any category of wealth, poverty, race, ethnicity, gender, or economic level. Yet Terhune says that what she does not find within the population of people who turn to Monarch for help are clients and patients.
“They are no such things,” says Terhune. “We call them people. If we call them clients and patients, we’re calling them ‘other.’ You’re saying they are different from you.” Terhune is adamant that they are not. “You’re a human being—I’m a human being—with all the hopes, desires and dreams that come along with that.”
Monarch provides services for adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illness and substance abuse challenges. Services, treatments and resource assistance in Mecklenburg County are administered through open access centers, outpatient clinics, intensive in-home services, community support teams, assertive community treatment teams, and transitional housing for people with mental illness.
Helping People Feel Better
Terhune is especially proud of Monarch’s open access centers.
“Somewhere, someone in need is walking into an agency. It’s like urgent care for mental health. We help them on the spot,” says Terhune. Most agencies will agree to see a person immediately only if they are presenting as suicidal or of harm to others. Terhune’s response is, “Why wait? Each person should get what they need when they need it.”
People exit from Monarch’s open access centers with an assessment, a prescription if needed, and an appointment or referrals for recommended therapies. “It’s so awesome to be with an agency that can do the right thing,” says Terhune.
“Peer support services also play an important role. Relating to someone who has walked in their shoes can really help another person along,” says Terhune. She also touts the Assertive Community Treatment Team. “They even go find people in need under bridges. If you are so depressed you can’t leave your home, we can come to you.”
Additionally, other services, such as those provided by group homes, employment services, day programs, and community services for adults and children, are available in various counties across the state. Services vary from one area to the next because providers such as Monarch are not approved to provide all services utilized by any one local management entity (LME) or managed care organization (MCO).
The MCO responsible for managing Medicaid funding for mental health, intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance use/addiction services in Mecklenburg County is Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions, the largest MCO in the state.
“We’re very creative and innovative,” says Terhune, citing pilot programs across the state designed to further integrative care and safely keep people out of the hospital, as well as medical consultation and teleconferencing. Monarch is responsible for bringing Mental Health First Aid, developed on a similar concept to CPR, to get the individual out of danger to North Carolina. Training is available to individuals and professionals. Monarch is also looking for new ways to provide services to veterans.
A not-for-profit, non-governmental entity, Monarch has grown into an $80 million budget aimed at providing services across much of the state of North Carolina. Thirty-thousand people were treated or assisted last year through Monarch services. The organization operates over a 100 group homes. Still, these numbers aren’t Terhune’s focus: “I don’t care about the numbers. My priority is the individual person.”
“We have lots of programs, but we try to allow people to tell us what they need versus fitting them into a program,” says Terhune. “We want to meet individual needs; craft something around what those specific needs are.”
Terhune offers up a few words that she believes describe the organization: cutting edge, mindful, holistic, proactive, and evidence-based.
Monarch, mantra “Helping Dreams Take Flight,” refuses to define people by their diagnoses. “Instead, we recognize each individual as a person of worth and value. We teach and remind people, some of whom have often been marginalized, devalued, maltreated or stigmatized, how to dream—how to live self-determined lives.”
“Individual goals vary widely, develop over time, and often have to do with some aspect of mainstream desires for a home, job or relationship,” says Terhune. “But most people seeking help, initially, just want to feel better. People who are hurting want to be able to get up in the morning, put their clothes on and have a nice day.”
Meeting the Need
Monarch operates under a volunteer board of directors. Three-fourths of the members either have, or are recovering from, a disability or mental health issue or have a family member who does. Additionally, each member brings some expertise to the board, such as finance, legal, marketing, human resources, or a specific experience, all which add up to a diversity of skills.
Members who cannot read or are otherwise unable are assigned a board buddy who helps them navigate material and discussion. “We especially want to hear from these folks; they are the ones most affected by the decisions the board makes,” emphasizes Terhune.
Monarch’s origins date back to 1958, when Albemarle was a relatively isolated locale with Charlotte a distance away. The post-WWII baby boom increased the number of children with disabilities. At that time, it was illegal for children with disabilities to attend school. They could sit in Sunday school classes, where it was witnessed that they could learn. According to Terhune, this led a group of Albemarle parents to get together and form The Association of Retarded Children.
They established the first group home. Their work led to the organization of The Arc of Stanly County, which is one of many chapters across the state and country. The organization evolved, changing its name to The Association of Retarded Citizens, then Arc Services and later Arc of Stanly County, all before becoming Monarch. The Arc of Stanly County remains as the local advocacy chapter now operated by Monarch.
During the 1960s, with states beginning to realize that they needed to take care of people with disabilities, area programs started to develop. These programs were self-managed, often with little accountability of funding and costs.
North Carolina responded by establishing local management entities which were financially responsible, but contracted out all services. They act more like insurance companies, approving services and expenses, and are referred to as MCOs. These groups have continued to be reduced in number for greater efficiency.
Today, the legislative debate is over Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) in which health care providers come together to simultaneously lower costs and raise the quality of care. This model puts a premium on integrative care which allows doctors to communicate with each other and reduces the duplicity of services, particularly diagnostic testing versus more general managed care.
These several decades have seen enormous strides in mental health care. “One of the things we know today is that one can recover from mental illness,” says Terhune. “We’ve gone from warehousing people that we thought would never get better to thinking that people can get better with appropriate services and medical intervention.”
Causes and Costs
Although much has been learned about mental illness, its exact causes still largely elude the medical research community. It is generally accepted that some mental illness can be hereditary, or genetically acquired, or caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.
Also, many medical issues carry a psychiatric component. People with chronic disease, such as diabetes or heart conditions, are more likely to have mental illness, as well. Circumstances, especially loss or trauma, can trigger mental illness. It is also believed that greater rates of diagnosis are behind the increased number of people with mental illness.
The social impact of mental illness and the stigma around it is often measured in losses—of homes, family structure, jobs, self-esteem, and overall health.
“Sufferers, if not treated, can lose everything,” says Terhune. There is also a great cost to productivity and the economy with losses of wages and tax dollars, and increased cost of services and systems—fire, police, EMS, prisons, hospitals, and schools—which are burdensome to society.
“The cost is huge,” laments Terhune. “We could so contain that cost if we had adequate, sufficient services.
Monarch obtains funds from Medicare, Medicaid, private insurances, Social Security and individual payments. Funding also comes in the form of grants, donations and in-kind contributions.
“We lose money on some services—people with no insurance—and balance that with other services,” says Terhune. “We also have to spend money on buildings, furniture and fixtures. The square foot rental cost of the restored warehouse where Monarch’s state headquarters is located is discounted by tax credits, but we can’t find that everywhere.”
Terhune’s frustrations are apparent when the discussion turns political. “Do I seriously hope that North Carolina legislature’s agrees at this point to accept the federal Medicaid expansion signed into law with the Affordable Care Act?
“Because behavioral health services are capitated, predictable and cost-effective, North Carolina needs to accept Medicaid expansion,” says Terhune, who sits on the five-member Medicaid Reform Advisory Group appointed by N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory.
“Can you imagine how many people could be helped? People express concern over Medicaid but we keep voting the same people into office. Why don’t we vote in people who get it?”
Monarch has experienced significant growth since its name change in 2008 and its expanded service offerings (beyond those for people with developmental disabilities) to include mental health programs. “People keep calling us and inviting us in. We’re in all of North Carolina’s MCOs in some way. We have the value they want,” says Terhune.
Another way Monarch has grown is by acquiring services from other organizations. “We are happy to merge with other providers; we do it all the time,” says Terhune. “We’re mostly looking for shared values, but we have taken on groups that are inept or are about to go under.”
Terhune explains that these expansions can be expensive. “Our board of directors says that we have to break even.”
One at a Time
One of Terhune’s first experiences with mental illness took place growing up in Brookfield, Ill., in the 1950s when her father, who worked in medical supplies, took her along to an orphanage of sorts that provided her with some ugly truths about how America treated people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
The children were very sick, expected to die. Babies were housed in cribs lining the walls. Older children, ages four or five, were in cages and had not been taught any language skills. There was no visible staff. Terhune tried in vain to persuade her father to take one of the children home.
She remembers his words: “Peggy, you can’t save everyone, but when you grow up you can do whatever you want to do.”
And Terhune is doing just that. As horrific as it was, the experience solidified her desire to do something for the people represented there.
Having earned her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy in 1974 and an M.B.A. in 1984, Terhune accepted her current post in 1995, after being second in command with a similar organization in Rochester. She has since earned her Ph.D. from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has been married to “the love of her life” for the past 22 years.
Terhune loves kids. Her husband loves kids. Together, they have raised a combined family of seven children and have fostered over 100 children. They are currently serving as therapeutic foster parents.
“It’s who we are,” says Terhune. “When you do what I do, it’s your whole life; it’s your value.”
“I have the best job in the world. I am so privileged,” says Terhune. “Every day I get to come to work and save the world and do God’s work. You save the world one person at a time. Every single day one of my 1,800 staff is touching someone in need; helping dreams take flight.”
Last October, all anyone seemed to be talking about was the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The first open enrollment period had just begun, and nothing seemed to be going right.
Millions of Americans were receiving cancellation notices from their health insurance providers because their existing health insurance policies didn’t meet the minimum coverage requirements. On top of that, the website for the federally operated insurance exchange repeatedly crashed, unable to handle the volume from a crush of consumers shopping for new coverage.
ACA implementation certainly got off to a rocky start, but one year later, the program seems to have regained momentum. Despite rollout problems, over 8 million Americans signed up for health insurance coverage on the state and federal marketplaces and another 8 million or so consumers gained coverage through other provisions of the new law.
Now, as the start of the second enrollment period looms on November 15, what changes can we expect nationally, and more specifically, in North Carolina? Will the website work this time, and what else will change for 2015?
Success But Challenges Remain
According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), between October 1, 2013, and April 19, 2014, nearly 2.6 million people signed up for health insurance coverage on State-based Marketplaces and over 5.4 million signed up in the Federally-facilitated Marketplace. An additional 4.8 million people gained coverage through Medicaid expansion, and HHS estimates another 3 million young people under the age of 26 gained coverage under their parents’ plan, bringing the total Americans securing new health care coverage to over 16 million.
Health care advocacy group The Commonwealth Fund conducted a national survey of 19- to 64-year-old adults this spring to compare to a similar survey conducted in the summer of 2013, prior to the first enrollment period. The survey found that the uninsured rate for the 19-to-64 age group declined from 20 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2014. The uninsured rate for young adults 19 to 34 declined the most of any adult age group, falling from 28 percent to 18 percent.
In North Carolina, 357,584 people enrolled through the Federally-facilitated Marketplace. Of those, 91 percent qualified for federal premium subsidies. Most popular were the mid-tier Silver plans, chosen by 74 percent of enrollees. North Carolina was in the top five nationally in ACA enrollment.
As the only insurer to offer products on the exchange for all 100 North Carolina counties, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) signed up over 230,000 customers through the Federal Marketplace. (Aetna’s Coventry subsidiary, which offered coverage in 39 counties, accounted for the rest of the NC total.) But with an estimated 1.3 million marketplace-eligible consumers in the state, BCBSNC President and CEO J. Bradley Wilson says there is still a huge opportunity to tap.
“There’s great opportunity out there for 2015 and beyond,” says Wilson. “There are plenty of people who did not choose to purchase for 2014. It was a strong start, but there are many more people who can come into the system beginning this fall.”
With the success of the 2014 enrollment, one additional competitor will enter the North Carolina marketplace for 2015. United Healthcare will become the third company on the N.C. exchange, but may not offer products in every county.
Despite the strong start, Wilson says there are reasons for concern moving into 2015. A massive effort is underway to get the Federal Marketplace website functioning properly, but he says technology concerns remain for the second enrollment period, which runs from November 15, 2014, through February 15, 2015.
“As we all know, the technological capability of the federal exchange fell far short of anyone’s expectation,” says Wilson. “I know they have been working diligently since the close of open enrollment in April to get ready for reenrollment in November. But while great strides have been made, our concern is that it is still going to fall short.
“People who are looking for the Amazon-type experience this fall will not have that. It is still going to be challenging and complicated, but we are all committed to working together to make it as seamless and as painless as possible.”
The renewal process for 2015 plans is intended to make it easier for customers to keep the plan they selected last year. However, it is important for customers to update their information for 2015 subsidy eligibility. There is a new calculation, so even if customers do not have any changes to their personal information, they will want to make sure they receive the amount they are qualified to receive in 2015. If no updates are made, the system will automatically renew with 2014 information.
But the technical challenges are not the only issue for 2015. As it turns out, the health demographics of the 2014 enrollees were somewhat different than expected.
“We’re also concerned because the pool of new customers was generally less healthy than what we had anticipated,” says Wilson. “The pool was also older than what we anticipated. Not surprisingly, those folks who needed insurance most desperately probably stayed with it longer, worked through the technical challenges, and procured their insurance. But that means the cost pressure will continue to be there as we go forward. So we clearly need more young people to enroll and purchase through this program.”
Wilson says that while the health and age of the marketplace pool will put upward pressure on premiums, the primary reason rates continue to increase is that overall medical costs keep rising. Whether it’s a new drug like Sovaldi that can cure Hepatitis C, but costs over $84,000 for a 12-dose regimen, or the increased use of medical services caused by aging baby boomers, or whether it’s the obesity epidemic, uncompensated care for the uninsured, or rampant waste and inefficiency in hospitals, overall health care costs continue to rise.
“Insurance premiums reflect the underlying cost of care,” explains Wilson. “If you really want to think about it simplistically, insurance premiums basically reflect the average cost of care in the particular geography where they are charged, plus an administrative cost for product construction, maintenance, and customer service.”
BCBSNC will announce rates for individual under 65 plans this month.
Uncompensated Care and Medicaid Expansion
One component of rising health care costs has always been uncompensated care, which is defined as care that is delivered, but for which the health care provider does not receive any or sufficient compensation—usually because the patient is uninsured. A hospital must try to recoup that loss through other mechanisms, which include looking to commercial insurers to pay more for the services their customers are receiving. The cost of uncompensated care gets calculated into the premium paid by people who buy insurance in the commercial and public marketplaces.
One of the primary goals of the ACA was to increase access to health insurance, thus decreasing the amount of uncompensated care. The act expanded Medicaid eligibility for Americans living at or below the poverty level, and the subsidized plans offered on the federal or state marketplaces were designed to cover those families living above the poverty level.
But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not mandate that the states accept Medicaid expansion, thus turning it into a state option. About half the states opted out of Medicaid expansion—including North Carolina—leaving many of those below the poverty line ineligible for either Medicaid or the subsidized exchanges.
According to The Commonwealth Fund survey, in the 25 states that, along with the District of Columbia, expanded their Medicaid programs, the uninsured rate for adults with incomes under 100 percent of the federal poverty level declined from 28 percent to 17 percent. In the states that did not expand their programs, the uninsured rate remained almost unchanged at 36 percent, compared to 38 percent in 2013.
A study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed 319,000 North Carolinians are in the coverage gap created by the state’s decision to opt out of Medicaid expansion. The North Carolina Institute of Medicine estimates 500,000 state residents in total—both those in and slightly above the coverage gap—would qualify for Medicaid under an expansion. The federal government would have funded the entire cost of the expansion for the first three years, with North Carolina’s contribution never rising above 10 percent.
“In my view, it is unfortunate that North Carolina did not expand Medicaid,” say BCBSNC’s Wilson. “Those North Carolinians who would be eligible for that coverage are still accessing care today. When they need medical services they are going to the emergency room, and our hospitals are delivering that care. But there is no mechanism for those hospitals to get paid. Medicaid provides a rational way to get some of that care paid for.
“There is plenty of opportunity to improve the way we do Medicaid, but while we are working to improve it, not covering these people does not add to the solution, in my opinion. The federal money is available, so turning it down does not do anything to balance the federal budget. The money is simply going elsewhere.”
The burden of uncompensated care is particularly acute for many of North Carolina’s rural hospitals, a number of which are highly dependent on Medicaid payments for their revenue model. Wilson says these hospitals are among a growing chorus urging the state legislature to reverse course and opt to expand Medicaid in North Carolina. Only time will tell whether that actually happens.
Impacts on Employers
The ACA “employer mandate” requires that all businesses with over 50 full-time-equivalent employees provide health insurance or pay a per-employee penalty. Originally set to begin in 2014, the mandate was delayed until 2015 for companies with more than 100 full-time employees and to 2016 for those with 50 to 99 full-time employees.
“Employers are evaluating what their options are, whether they are going to be able to afford it, and if not, what the alternative is,” explains Wilson. “Most employers would like to be able to continue to provide the benefits, but for small employers there is high anxiety about the value proposition and whether they are simply going to be able to afford it.
“We will provide the best products and services we can, at the best price, and will help employers make the right decision for themselves and their employees. I also think there will be an ever-growing place for private exchanges as companies try to control costs.”
Private exchanges are similar to the public marketplaces operated under the ACA, but are offered by employers to their own employees. While there are many variations of private exchanges, companies will generally contribute a specific amount for employees to spend on insurance, with the workers choosing from a menu of options.
“According to some estimates, there could be as many as 40 million people—about 10 percent of the population of the country—enrolled in private exchanges by 2018,” says Patrick Brady, Blue Cross’ Charlotte-based director of major and national accounts. “National research shows that a lot of the exchange activity is taking place in mid-sized companies with up to 1,000 employees, but any company with over 50 employees will be able to purchase coverage on BlueBenefits Center, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina’s private exchange.”
Most large companies are not directly impacted by the employer mandate since they already offer coverage to their employees. But the ACA also mandated minimum coverage levels, out-of-pocket maximums, and other plan elements that went into effect for 2014. Large employers had several years to prepare, so they should already be in compliance.
“Enrollment by employees of larger employers has actually ticked up some this year,” offers Brady. “I think it is an awareness by employees that the individual mandate requires that they have health insurance, so they need to either look at their employer’s plan or look at the public exchange to see if that is better than what they can get from their employer.”
“Employers are offering more choice, and more choice for the consumer is a good thing,” Brady continues. “It allows them to self-direct what they want to accomplish in health care, much like they would in any financial environment. We’re now in an era when the consumer is being asked to make good decisions, and in order to make good decisions the consumer needs good tools. So we have focused and will continue to focus on providing those tools.”
With greater choice comes the need for the consumer to understand health insurance and the options and tradeoffs they will be faced with in choosing the right plan for their own family and their own situation. Gone are the days when their employer made all of the decisions with a “one-size-fits-all strategy.”
“I believe that having informed and empowered consumers will be the key to improving and transforming our health care system,” concludes Wilson. “Being informed and empowered starts with education and engagement, so I think that is where this country is headed with health insurance.”
When you think of renovation, you likely think of upgrading a few fixtures in a kitchen or bathroom, but for the Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park located at 5700 Westpark Drive, renovation has meant a year-long process to change not just the look of the hotel, but also the feel, both inside and out. From the new open lobby/restaurant/bar concept to the guest rooms and even the hotel’s green spaces, virtually everything has received an upgrade that calls to mind beautiful European influences.
Of the renovations, General Manager Bill Bennett says, “When you look at the scope of the renovations that we’ve done at this hotel over the past year and how dramatically they have changed the look and feel—to take a building that’s served this market for over 30 years and completely change it—it’s just exciting to be a part of that.”
Although the Crowne Plaza brand is new, “The hotel itself was built in 1983, so it’s been serving the Charlotte market for quite some time,” acknowledges Bennett. “It originally operated as a Marriott hotel. At that time, Marriott was in the middle of a very large growth span, so you saw a lot of these hotels open in the early to mid-’80s.
“One of the main attractions here was a high-energy nightclub, which is now our lobby/restaurant/bar concept, ‘Food for Thought.’ This was one of the first true luxury hotels outside of the city center area, and a lot of people we talk to have fond memories of coming here for meetings or to the nightclub during that era.
“It operated under the Marriott franchise agreement until June 2013. The prior November, Marathon Asset Management, located out of New York, bought the hotel. At that time, they were reevaluating the direction they wanted to take things and they questioned whether Marriott was the right brand. Even though it had been operating under Marriott for 30 years, was it truly reflective of what today’s business traveler is looking for?”
Marathon Asset Management decided to convert the hotel to the Crowne Plaza brand. Crowne Plaza is part of the InterContinental Hotel Group, the largest hotel chain in the world. Currently, the company is in the process of completing a full re-launch, and the Charlotte location is conceptually the face of the new Crowne Plaza brand.
Bennett continues, “June of 2013 we came under new management by Valor Hospitality Partners, based out of Atlanta, Ga. I’ve been at this hotel since April 2010. I come out of a sales and marketing background, but I do have a history of running hotels as well with the Peabody Hotel Group under the Hilton brand. When we converted to the Crowne Plaza hotel, I was honored to be appointed to general manager.”
Renovating and Reinventing
It has been a challenge over the course of the last year for the hotel’s staff to contend with providing guests with excellent service in the midst of renovations at the Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park, acknowledges Bennett, yet rewarding he says as he’s watched his team handle the process with skill and ease. In fact, he acknowledges, “The team is the heart of the hotel.”
He explains, “24/7…that’s an operation that takes a team in order to be successful. Our management philosophy is that we believe our relationship with our associates is cultural. We have to develop the culture where our associates can excel. Our relationship with our guests is emotional. Knowing and understanding that travel today is much different than it was five years ago, 10 years ago, we want to make that emotional connection with our guests, and it’s only through our associates that we can do that.”
“A hotel is nothing more than brick and mortar,” Bennett adds. “No matter how much money you invest into a property, it’s your hotel team that gives it its personality. The culture within a hotel is what plays a major role in delivering a memorable guest experience. So, in order to take care of a 24/7 operation, you have to surround yourself with stellar team members, and you have to develop a culture where those team members can excel.”
Finding the right team members, however, is only one piece of the puzzle. In a city full of lodging accommodations, it can be easy to get lost in the crowd as more and more hotels are vying for the business of travelers in the Queen City. In fact, near Crowne Plaza alone, there are at least six hotels within walking distance.
As companies like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy have expanded over the last decade, they have brought with them more workers traveling in and out of the region, meaning it takes more than just a comfy bed to attract guests.
In order to stand out, Bennett says, “First, we have to start with the facility itself. There’s no other facility in the city of Charlotte that can offer what we do in terms of proximity. We’re three blocks from the Lynx light rail. And if you want to go to uptown, go to South Park and do some shopping or enjoy dining at some of the bistros there, if you want to go to the White Water Center or to Carowinds, literally everything is within about a 15-minute reach of this location.”
“On top of that,” he continues, “we offer 300 guest rooms and, 16,000 square feet of meeting space. But we also sit on almost seven acres of land, so we have a park-like feel to the hotel. Our pool deck area is very expansive, contains dual fire pits, and is able to accommodate receptions for up to 200 people. Simply put, our outdoor area is second to none. Additionally, there’s only a handful of full-service hotels that offer complimentary airport transportation, and we’re proud to be one of them.”
Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park is also meticulous in how it organizes its team as the facility caters to thousands of guests each month. Using a leadership team comprised of Bennett, a sales and marketing force, food and beverage director, a chief engineer, a director of financing, an executive chef, and several other experts, Crowne Plaza Charlotte covers every detail to deliver a memorable guest experience.
“Everything that we’ve done with our restaurant ‘Food for Thought’—in fact, everything that we’ve done with our entire kitchen’s makeup—has been scrutinized by our leadership team,” Bennett remarks. “When searching for an executive chef, we spent nine months, reviewed 180 resumes, and flew in 10 candidates just to find the right individual to fit into this team.
“This hotel, even under the dramatic, invasive renovation that we’ve experienced over the last year, is currently rated number four for meeting satisfaction tracking surveys,” Bennett continues. “Out of 400 hotels, we’re number four, which is something that wouldn’t be possible without our leadership team and all of our associates.”
Keep Guests Coming Back
Speaking to changes and growth at Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park, Bennett says, “Right now, we have about 140 employees, but we anticipate seeing that grow. Over the course of the last year, we’ve had on average 74 rooms out of service at a time, and as we continue to rebound out of this renovation, we anticipate adding about 30 new associates.
“Charlotte is such a dynamic market, and we’ve had unprecedented occupancy growth. I want to say something like 36 months of continued occupancy growth within the city itself. As a result, it’s our duty to our guests to keep up with this growth.”
Attracting and retaining guests also requires the right marketing, the right loyalty rewards, and the right feedback mechanisms. Currently, Crowne Plaza Charlotte uses a variety of marketing channels, including digital and print, but it also relies on its strategic partnerships with BMW Motorsports and the PGA Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial to get the word out.
In terms of building guest loyalty, Bennett points out that the hotel targets a demographic referred to as “strivers.” These individuals are highly motivated and work in a fast-paced environment, but they are also in need of a hotel environment where they can transition from work to leisure to socialization, all in the same area.
“Take a look at how this hotel is now designed to accommodate today’s traveler,” says Bennett. “They can sit in our lobby and enjoy complimentary WiFi, which is also available in all guest rooms, and that’s something that’s rare in today’s hotel environment. They can return their emails, watch sports on TV, get a bite to eat, share a plate or cocktails with friends, all from the comfort of our lobby. This is just one small part of what keeps our guests coming back.”
He continues, “We also offer IHG Rewards, the largest hotel rewards system in the world, but brand consistency is key as well. What you receive in Charlotte is what you’ll receive at the Crowne Plaza in Greenville, S.C., or at any one of our 400 locations.”
What Bennett truly attributes to Crowne Plaza’s success in keeping guests coming back, however, is the passion with which its management team serves each hotel.
“Every management company has their own mantra or value system, but how many really believe in their passion and develop an entire company around it? At Valor Hospitality Partners, our managing partner, Euan McGlashan, has operated the Cape Grace Hotel in South Africa, the number one hotel in the world as recognized by Condé Nast.
“After this experience, he decided that he was going to start his own management company. He wanted to work with people that have that passion for excellent service, people that want to be successful. In a short amount of time, Valor Hospitality Partners is up to 22 hotels in the United States and in Europe, which is why you’ll see the European influence in our recent renovation.”
Keeping Up With Change
Bennett keeps abreast of technology as it impacts the hotel industry as a whole and specifically Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park. “Technology is a major player shaping the future of our industry, and I think it’s great—but it can also be a hindrance,” he remarks. “Nowadays we need to be connected, but at the same time, we need to be able to just unplug.
“We offer free WiFi and a strong bandwidth and things like programmable voicemail for our guests, but we’ve also designed our pool, fitness and green spaces to be inviting to help our guests get away for a little bit.”
Indeed, technology is changing the face of the hotel industry. Many hotels are toying with the concept of doing away with check-in and check-out times, allowing customers to remotely check-in online, and some have begun instituting the ability to use smart phones to unlock doors. This may speed up the check-in process, but it can also lead to a “self-service” experience.
Bennett says, “At the end of the day, the hotel business is still about the art of hospitality, and in order to be hospitable, you have to have a staff that is trained in guiding towards that. People still want to be pampered, recognized, they still want to sit down and share a plate with friends. Whoever can provide that along with the technology side is going to win the race.
“I feel like, as an industry, we’ve done a great job at greying those lines of delineation. Today’s business traveler knows that they need convenience. They need something that’s clean. They need to have something—how they want it—at the time they want it.
“It still goes back to the fact that we’re in a people business and you have to provide that level of care and understanding.”