9 1/2 Questions: An Interview with Dixon Schwabl By: Roland SalmiMBA

According to Lauren Dixon, the CEO of Dixon Schwabl, a PR firm in Rochester, New York, business is all about people. This simple oxicon from her father, she claims, was the best piece of advice she had ever received and is the core belief for how she runs her business. Dixon and Schwabl has been ranked No. 5 on the Advertising Age list of 40 Best Places to Work in Advertising & Media, and No. 7 on the 2014 Best Small Workplaces list (a prestigious list put together by the Great Places to Work Institute and published by Fortune magazine). The company was also ranked No. 1 in Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of marketing communications firms, and No. 62 on the 2014 Rochester Top 100 list of fastest-growing privately held firms.

Lauren credits Dixon Schwabl’s success on the company’s culture. In this edition of 9 ½ questions, Lauren Dixon and Karen Simms, Dixon Schwabl’s Vice President of People and Development, discuss how Dixon Schwabl was founded, some of the benefits and perks offered to employees, tips on how companies can begin to work towards making their company a great place to work, and some other interesting tidbits. 

1. Thank you for having us in. Dixon Schwabl is such a unique place to work, but as with any great company there was always the startup. Could you tell us how you came to create the firm?

Lauren Dixon: I started this business on a whim and a prayer. I don’t have a business background— I’ve never even taken a business class. My degree is in broadcast journalism and I have a minor in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. So it makes a whole lot of sense that I’m running this business right? It probably makes no sense at all. I was in television for a long time, 12 years or so, both on the broadcast side and on the sales side. My father is the one who encouraged me to start a business since he owned a trucking business for around 40 years, and he too, didn’t have a business background. …One of the things I thought about when I started the company was what was going to be my company’s differentiator. Back 28 years ago, there were a million advertising agencies, so I called 30 CEOs that owned companies who hired advertising agencies and asked them the three things they loved about their advertising agency and the three things which really bugged them. So I met with 30 people and the three things that bugged them were all the same. They said it in different language, but at the end of the day they were all the same. So I made those three things my point of differentiation. I wrote a white paper and my promise back to the participants for their time, was I would share the results with them. 

It was just so curious that the three things that bugged them were all the same. The first thing was “my advertising agency really doesn’t care about me”. I thought that was interesting. When I probed further they were real specific about what their advertising agency didn’t do: they didn’t thank them for their business, they didn’t follow up after a campaign to find out how it was going, and they didn’t follow up in the middle of the campaign to see if it was tracking on target—three simple things. The second thing was that production costs were too high. Then the third thing was “the estimate I received never matches the bill”. My question was, “So you paid it?” Everyone said yes! In the white paper I wrote my findings, as I begin my business these three points were going to be my points of differentiation. Of the thirty people, two people called me and asked me if I would be their advertising agency. No, it was not genius on my part, I had no idea what I was doing. The first 48 hours I picked up two very significant pieces of business. That week I met with the first one which was Hoselton’s and the owner said to me, “Would you like an auto dealership in Buffalo, one of our friends owns the largest dealership in Buffalo and I don’t think he has an advertising agency.” I’m scratching my head like really?! They dial the phone and to make a long story short, I had an appointment with them at 10 o’clock the next day and won his business. My revenues were $3.5 million dollars that first year and that never ever, ever happens. So I went from me, myself, and I that first week to hiring six people. But I started very conservative and slow. 

2. What was the best piece of business advice you have received?
LD: [My Father] gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten which is: hire people smarter than you and motivate and excite them into wanting to come into work every single day. And if you can do those two things well your business will be successful.

And he was right. At the end of the day it’s all about people and bringing the brightest people in and then just getting out of their way. Many leaders have big egos, but you can’t have too big of an ego to believe you have all the great ideas. I think early on when I started the business I probably hadn’t learned that lesson as well as I’ve learned it today and the times I have backed off have been the times when the biggest and best ideas were born. 

We have a belief here that if you think you have a big idea, you come to my office. Tell me how it’s going to meet our 3 to 5 year strategy and I will either make a decision on the spot or I will get back to you in 48 hours to tell you if we are going to do it now or in the future; and what that says to people is that their ideas are important. They are going to keep coming back with more and more ideas, so let them act and then get the heck out of their way and let them do their thing. Trust and know they are going to make the best decisions for your company. And as I’ve gone through this journey, 28 years into it, I just count my lucky stars every day that we have had the opportunity to hire the best and the brightest because I don’t have to look over their shoulder. I don’t have to micro manage them.

3. Do you think if enough people start to grasp this new approach of grassroots focus and allow their employees to become more empowered will it become a wave for corporate America or do you think it is going to be “niche-y” where only a few select industries will adopt this strategy?

LD: That’s a great question. 50% of the audience looks at you like you have 10 heads, because what they’re thinking is “Are you kidding me? This is the soft stuff, I can’t do that. I’m not going to waste time on the soft stuff. The things you are talking about, Lauren Dixon, is the nice to have, maybe sort of, but it isn’t going to affect my business.” The other 50% are nodding their heads, seeing how it’s going to increase productivity thus increasing profitability.

…When we were ranked No. 1 in 2008, my CFO said to me, “All these people think it’s the soft stuff—it’s not.” When you look at what has transpired in our organization year over year: A 142% increase in job applications. We had over 300 people apply to a position we had recently from all over the world—from London, Italy, NYC, Boston, Chicago—but that didn’t happen when we had first started our company or even 10 years into it. It’s happening because we’re being recognized as a great place to work. Guess what: that’s what team members want. They want to feel valued, feel they’re contributing and have an opportunity at work to make a difference in the community or in the work they do. What that says to me is get the heck out of their way and let them do what you’ve hired them to do. If that other 50% can stop and look (whatever industry they’re in) and can see that, they can make more money. Until they can see that, they’re not going to do it for sure. You look at Wegmans and 92 percent of their workforce is between the ages of 15 and 18. So, if a company ran by teenagers can be a great place to work, I think any industry can make that happen. 

It is a mind switch in terms of a leader’s approach and philosophy about how to run a company. And many leaders are very financially driven and that’s the thing that gets them up in the morning. That’s not the thing that gets me up in the morning. The thing that gets me up in the morning is: “how am I going to make Dixon Schwabl irresistible to my team members?” and then. at the end of the day, asking myself “how did I deliver on that?” Some days are better than others. If you focus on people first, the profits will happen. Focusing only on profits without regard to people? Not gonna happen.

4. What do you say to the other 50%, “the nay-sayers”, the ones that say it’s impossible to implement something like this and make money? How do you convince them otherwise? 

LD: First I share all of my data. The 242% increase in applications is huge, because then you ensure you are getting the best and the brightest: those that are going to be making the best decisions for your company. The second thing was we got a 126% increase in college internships—that is important for our industry and our organization. Right now, 21% or our employees were college interns. We love that because we can test-drive them, we can test their raw talent and their attitude which is everything. We don’t want one piece of poison to infiltrate this organization, so how do we ensure that is not going to happen? You snuggle up to them for three months and find out if they have what it takes. We have had, this year, a 50% increase in new business. Why? Because businesses are attracted to great places to work. When we’re up against three other companies, what is our point of differentiation? This becomes one—culture does. 

I use outcomes of other companies. Badger Mining Company has been on the best small companies to work list for three years in a row now; How can a mining company be a great place to work? Every industry under the sun has had a spot on the Great Places to Work list. There are manufacturing organizations that say, “we’re not special, we’re manufacturing, we couldn’t possibly be a great place to work”. I would challenge them and say, “absolutely, positively you can”. Because there are manufacturing companies on the list—they do things that are different. Do they do all the perks we do? Absolutely not. Fun is one of our core values: that may not be a core value of a mining company and that’s ok. But how our brand personality shows up and our behaviors fall in line with that will be very different than a manufacturer or a hospital. We bring squirt guns to brainstorming sessions; we have ice cream Thursdays. Can a hospital do that? Possibly. Would an accounting firm want to do that? Maybe. When I speak, people are there writing everything down, I tell them not to write everything down—don’t copy what we’re doing. Understand your brand personality and create those things that are true to that, not copying what someone else is doing. First you have to figure out what your core values are then behave and act on those. 

Karen Simms: We’ve found the best perks aren’t the most expensive. Like ice cream Thursdays generally comes out on top—70% of our employees cite that as their favorite even though we have a bonus program and profit sharing which arguably is much more expensive. Sometimes when you ask what people like, you are surprised. We have a company band that had such a huge response that there is 16 people in it now. You just have to ask people what they want which, isn’t necessarily going to be the budget busters. For example, Yoga is very cost effective and it’s a wellness program. What we do is we ask “what do you want?”, but then we empower them to implement it. It’s not all on the managing partners, HR, or department heads. People really feel like they have a voice in what we’re doing here, which leads to more engaged employees because you’re giving them what they want. And it usually all makes sense anyway with our core values and wellness and giving back. That has been what we’ve found. 

5. What was the first non-monetary perk that you gave to your employees? 

KS: It was the Make-It-Happen day where employees can take time from work to go volunteer and still get paid for it. Ice cream Thursdays was probably second. We’ve done other things like hand out squirt guns to people before, besides the profit sharing and bonus program. 

LD: We have another reward called the Jazz Janie award that was created to keep the memory of one our leaders alive who was such an amazing human being. She co-lead our public relation team and she passed away from cancer. So, to keep her memory alive, one Wednesday a month we award the Jazz Jannie award and we talk about the person and its keeping all the things she embodied alive. We demonstrate, in a paragraph, why that person is being named Jazz Janie because of all of those special things this person did this past month. And then they get a big trophy before they pass it on to the next month’s recipient. They also get the parking lot’s most coveted spot—right out front. So that’s a recognition memorial, but that’s been around for a while. Its special … We also decided we were going to set up a scholarship for her at SUNY Geneseo, her alma mater, for a public relations student … Every year we do a fundraiser a golf tournament, right now the scholarship is up to $150,000+. 

KS: We’ve had students come back and tell us the scholarship had enabled them to take an extra class, it really did make a big difference. It was very nice to have the kids come back from the golf tournament and tell us. So it did exactly what Jane wanted which has kept her memory alive and it also reinforce her commitment to the profession and excellence overall. I know Geneseo is very appreciative.

LD: So now we’re able to give six [scholarships] a year. I know every year we keep raising the bar saying, “another $50,000 more, let’s get it up to half a million”. I think that’s what our new goal is, so we can keep awarding scholarships in her name. She really meant the world to us, and talk about embodying the culture. And we have so many Jane-isms it’s not even funny. Her favorite expression was, “help me, help you”. We do keep her memory alive every single month. So that’s another non-monetary thing. 

KS: We also have the Spouse-Of-The-Month award. Our most recent recipient was our audio engineer that also does a lot of our IT work, so he’s here some nights and weekends updating things on the server. So it’s something to give back to the spouse for their patience for when someone is away or when people travel. We’ve given it to some people that work on a golf tournament in South Carolina. We give them a gift certificate to 2Vine [restaurant] to show them appreciation for the time they take to be away from their family for a little bit. 

LD: I don’t think many leaders take the simple things like hand written notes, the thank you, the little tiny things that go so far. Every Friday I come in an hour early and the reason I do this is because its not a natural thing for me, I’m always on the move and onto the next thing … I know how important it is. If I go around this building, I can see my notes up on people’s bulletin board. It means something to them. It means something to them that I’m acknowledging them for going above and beyond. Its very important for leaders to do this … Every Friday I come in and write my 10 notes—I’ve been doing that for 15 years now maybe. It takes a little discipline, but it means so much to people by just saying a simple thank you.

6. How do you collect your data?

LD: We do it by the Great Places to Work survey. So there are 52 questions in different categories: Trust, Camaraderie, Fairness, Pride, Respect, and Credibility. There are 50 questions where you rate us 1-5 and two others: “Why is this great place to work?” and “what could we do to make this a better place to work?” We get those surveys back verbatim so we can see exactly what they need and want. Karen and I sit and go over them. Karen always goes to the best and I always go to the worst. They’re not earth shattering things—like “Can you make the parking lot bigger?” which we’re working with the town to get another lane. The Great Place to Work survey is the thing we look at every year. We focus on three things and we work really hard all year long, and we convene a task force. The great thing about this survey is that it breaks it down by demographic group. That is very important because different demos rank us differently depending on the question. So we can attack every single thing in a very thoughtful meaningful way. Karen and I sit and we discuss the things we’re hearing and how we’re going to go about trying to raise the bar in that area. Training is a good example. One year we had a lousy score. It was by a specific demographic group, 25-34 years olds, ranked us horribly in training. Above 35 we scored a 100%. What we found out was their [25-34 years olds] definition of training was different than our definition of training. So what we had to do was adjust our language going forward. They didn’t think webinars were training or “lunch-and-learns” were training—they’re training. Their definition of training was “send me to New Orleans for a creative workshop; send me somewhere where I’m going to have fun”. Every Wednesday we have a company-wide meeting and all we had to do was adjust the way we talked about it. So now when we broadcast it, we say we have the following trainings scheduled this week, we have a webinar this day and a lunch-and-learn this day so who wants to sign up for these opportunities? It’s really a business acumen thing than anything else, but it’s not on them, it’s on us—it’s our responsibility. This young group they want training back to back. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Many CEOs bang their heads against the walls because they want millennials to behave like baby boomers; they’re not going to, so get over yourself already. Adjust your management style to what it is that they want, end of discussion. It’s an interesting group because they are different than boomers; they are different from the X-generation as well. 

7. How do you come up with your perks?

LD: We don’t create any of the perks, none of the management team does. The managing partners don’t create anything. It’s all created within. So if someone wants to start a volleyball team, they start it. We have a budget item called “Fun” and they can tap into the Fun budget. They get monies that way to create things. Recently when we were doing our health care benefits we listened to them, they wanted three options and we had only had two options before. I think what the managing partners are really good at is getting everyone’s thoughts/feelings and then acting. It doesn’t come from the top; it all comes from the bottom up which is an interesting approach.

It has really helped us retain employees; it’s also helped us attract employees because the buzz internally is such that people want to work here. It’s really interesting to me because we’ve turned it upside down and backwards; and I’ve really learned a lot from Danny and Colleen Wegman who own and run Wegmans. Their approach is very similar. I admire and study their leadership; they obviously have it right and have been doing it a long time. 

8. You and Mike Schwabl just recently just got named as co-chairs for the United Way 2015 Campaign. What drives you both in being so active to giving back?

LD: It’s one of our core values and it goes back to that. We live it every single day. Mike and I are on many boards—I’m on 13 boards and he’s also on a lot. I think it is our responsibility as business owners who have had any degree of success to give back to people who need our help. We’re there to deliver on that. This has been something, since day one, Mike and I have been passionate about. Mike comes from a journalism background like me, but he also comes from a not-for-profit background; he worked at Easter Seals. I’ve always been passionate about giving back even as a child, we did fundraising things like lemonade stands for the little community I grew up in. I come from a family that whole-heartedly believes in giving back and that it is a responsibility more than anything. The other thing is we know what our people want, they’ve told us—they want to feel good. What we do is not rocket science; we’re not saving lives … Side bonus: we’ve learned along the way is that people want to do business with people who give back. That’s not why we did it day one, but it’s a benefit that we’ve certainly seen over the years. So it’s not bad for business. 

9. As far as all the perks go that you have, how do you keep costs under control where its not cutting into your profits?

LD: Our productivity here is so high it takes care of itself. We do scrutinize; we don’t spend lavishly on perks. The perks that have the most meaning are the perks that don’t cost the most money. We get creative with how we deliver them. 

KS: We always have a Columbus Day clam bake for example and it’s put on by the business office so it’s not catered. We have people volunteer and bring equipment from home and people can bring a dish to pass. We get everything from Palmers and it takes up some time, but only that one day a year. For people with spouses that work at banks, they have off. So for them to have to come to work let’s try to make it as fun as possible—now it is in its 6th year. People really appreciate when you do volunteer and don’t just pick up the phone and call a caterer. That is actually a pretty cost effective event. 

LD: We do really cost effective things, like pumpkin carving contests; we buy pumpkins for everyone and send them home and their families get involved. That is important to us, that work-life balance. How can we contribute to having a fun opportunity at home, but then bring it back into the office, so families share with other families? That’s not an expensive thing. We’re very mindful because we do have profit sharing—we don’t want people thinking we’re spending frivolously because there is something in it for them too. So we have to be very, very careful and strike the right balance there. But because the productivity is so high our profitability is in check. So we don’t really have to worry too much about that, but we are mindful of it.

9 ½. How do you slowdown in an industry that never stops?

Lauren: I asked my dad a similar question, six months into my business I would get up every single night and write myself notes in the middle of the night. “When do you stop and start sleeping all night long? When does your brain just turn off?” He had an interesting answer and didn’t skip a beat. He said, “Lauren, the day you do that, it’s time to get out of the business because you’ve lost your competitive edge.” You can never slow down. Our business is going faster today than it was 28 years ago. I mean now it’s on steroids for god sake. Then the only thing I had to do was come up with the campaigns for radio, TV, print, and maybe billboards. Today, I have to think about how this is going to work on social; how’s it going to feel on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Forget about blogs and everything else you have to consider: video, email blasts, regular email, television, print, Google words. It’s just crazy! It’s more complicated and faster. Google changes every minute and a half and how do you keep up with that? Thank god we have an interactive and a digital department because I would be totally in the dark. The things we learn every Wednesday, the things that can happen in a week, is mind blowing, just mind blowing. So you can’t slow down ever—keep taking your vitamin B12. 

"If you focus on people first, the profits will happen. Focusing only on profits without regard to people? Not gonna happen.”

"Many CEOs bang their heads against the walls because they want millennials to behave like baby boomers; they’re not going to, so get over yourself already. Adjust your management style to what it is that they want, end of discussion.”

 
Roland C. Salmi

Roland is an Associate Analyst at Westminster Consulting, where he executes performance analysis, client projects and investment support for senior consultants. Roland brings research knowledge, industry trends, and a commitment to client success to the Westminster team.

Prior to joining Westminster...

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