• WisBusiness

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fashion Forward: Dressing for success in the recession

By Mitch Bram
People are changing their mindset on how to dress in the workplace with the current economic situation. After all, these are interesting times and interesting times call for interesting measures ... or something like that.

I wanted to start off by sharing a few tid-bits from a recent article: ''Worried Lawyers Embrace Gordon Gekko's Wardrobe."

Fear of layoffs has more lawyers giving up business casual and returning to business suits and tasteful accessories, according to at least one consultant quoted in the story.

"Power clothes" are back in fashion, and worried lawyers are among those embracing the style, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Communications consultant Gretchen Neels told the newspaper the bad economy is spurring the change at law firms she advises. "In our economic times, you really want to have your game on," she said. "You can't be too formal."

At men's retailer Paul Fredrick, 1980s-style clothing featured in the movie Wall Street is back in style, the story says. Big sellers include white-collared, colored dress shirts and yellow power ties.

But at Bickel & Brewer, power clothes were never out of style, according to the story. Even mailroom clerks wear suits at the firm. Managing partner Bill Brewer explains his sartorial philosophy. "I think people expect high-powered lawyers to look like high-powered lawyers," he told the Wall Street Journal. "Anything else is sending the wrong signal."

I am not advising that our friends at UPS and FedEx should start shopping with me, and I know that my reading audience is not all comprised of high-powered attorneys near New York either. However, I do feel that by dressing "better" we can promote higher levels of self image, client / business confidence, and poise ourselves for successes everyday.

For all of those readers out there who aren't quite at the top of the pecking order yet, dressing up can help you to cement your position as a professional who takes your prospective position with the company seriously in these uncertain times. It may seem shallow, but looking and feeling the part is sometimes the only difference between who gets fired, and who can afford to pay the mortgage for a few more months.

Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. If we want to see positive results in our lives, then we all have to make a decision right now to do something different. It could be wearing a nicer pair of slacks to the office with a tucked in shirt for some. While others may want to wear a sport coat or suit more often.

And if you are the type that has questions as to what to wear in general and you are looking for some advice ... just pick up the phone and give me a call. Be certain in these uncertain times.

-- Mitch Bram is the director of sartorial splendor with Tom James Clothing in Madison. He'll be working toward building a more Fashion Forward Wisconsin by sharing his advice and expertise on the subject of proper dress.

E-mail your fashion questions to info@wisbusiness.com or call Mitch directly at 608-278-0391 or 608-712-6499.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

More than ever, employees vital to companies in down economy

By Norma Jean Knollenberg
"You can't cut your way to prosperity" is an often-quoted piece of business advice heard even more often these days amid the jitters on both Wall Street and Main Street. Just as that sage advice applies to corporate marketing and advertising budgets, so it goes for a company's employee incentive and rewards program.

While there may be an overriding temptation among businesses to target employee motivation and incentive programs as a way to trim costs during lean times, research conducted by the partner organizations of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) -- the Incentive Federation and the Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement -- have, in fact, shown a negative impact in lost talent, productivity, and, consequently, future sales and profits once an economic turnaround begins.

For many businesses, these are generally unseen but large and unrecoverable costs. Companies today must be careful to protect the 85 percent of their assets that are tied up in the human knowledge and talent of their employees. One way to protect these assets is to resist cutting long-term employee incentive programs in favor of a short-term gain.

In fact, IMA research points to a direct connection between engaged, productive employees and profitability. That same research shows that non-cash incentives, such as merchandise and travel, are a significant motivator. Today's employees, who are working longer hours and taking fewer vacation days, are often moved to better performance by special incentives which include travel opportunities.

Additional research has uncovered that companies that continue to invest in perks, rewards, and recognition programs regardless of economic conditions tend to outperform their competitors. Companies which cut their incentives programs too severely run the risk of losing their top talent once economic conditions begin to improve. Many companies experienced that problem following the last recession in 2001.

Certainly, every company must act responsibly and use incentive programs appropriate to the current economy, and the economy of their particular industry. Incentive marketing professionals can examine a company's current employee incentive program, and, if needed, point the company in the direction to the right program which will produce the desired results.

The issues to consider when establishing or re-evaluating an employee incentive program include your company's goals, and choosing the appropriate incentives -- be it gift cards, merchandise, travel -- that reflect the company's business values. Most importantly, the incentive program must have potential for short-term and long-term results, and those results must be measurable.

Compared with advertising, direct marketing, and event marketing, well-designed incentive programs have by far the highest level of cost accountability related to results. This is probably the number one reason for increasing; not decreasing; incentive usage during tough times. In addition, for those companies with a low tolerance for risk, incentive plans can be close-ended, and designed to fit a set budget. These programs can deliver improved performance during times of extreme budget stress.

The employee incentive industry is comprised of skilled professionals who help companies effectively use incentive programs to motivate both employees and customers. It is a $46.1 billion marketplace, with $13.4 billion spent on travel, and another $32.7 billion in merchandise. Those numbers are huge because, to put it simply, incentives work.

In this time of economic uncertainty, savvy companies know that employee incentive programs, unlike other business strategies, have been, and are still today able to withstand economic downturns and significantly contribute to a company's bottom line.

As the national organization that fosters best practices around the principles of results-based incentive design, we encourage business decision-makers to think about their most valuable asset, their employees, as they move forward to meet the challenges of today's economy.

-- Knollenberg is owner and CEO of Top Brands, Inc. in Oshkosh, Wis. and is president of the board of the Incentive Marketing Association, the leading voice of suppliers in the incentive marketplace. IMA provides education and information services, publications, conferences and seminars, and research to business to help them efficiently use incentive programs to motivate employees and customers. More information about the IMA and the incentive marketplace is available on its web site at http://www.incentivemarketing.org


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Media innovation hits top gear even as news landscape shifts

By Jennifer Sereno
As media organizations seek new ways to deliver information in the midst of a severe advertising downturn, it's not surprising that the experimentation may create some concern among traditional users.

But visits to a number of newsrooms around the state in recent days have me convinced that readers, viewers, and yes -- even "Tweeters" (users of Twitter.com) -- stand to benefit in major ways from these efforts to advance the industry.

Without giving away any secrets, it's safe to say that in my 20-plus years of experience with the news media, I've never seen the level of innovation, collaboration and original thinking that is occurring today.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's the best of times for those toiling away in newsrooms hit by layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes and the like. On the outside, it's also not the easiest of times for those who have a legitimate story to tell and are struggling over which media organization, or editor, or reporter to approach with breaking news. Not to mention everyone's adjustment to a locally driven, 24-7 news cycle.

By now, everyone reading this column is familiar with the concept of online news in many forms – reading text on the Web, clicking through interactive graphics, viewing live-streamed video and listening to podcasts all come to mind. Most of you are probably also receiving e-mail news alerts via computer or cell phone.

Yet behind the scenes, Wisconsin's homegrown news industry is working on many levels to better customize your coverage and make it more convenient and accessible. An all-you-can-eat news buffet is quickly replacing the old sit-down meal, thanks to reader research projects that help newsrooms better deploy resources; Web data that hones in on usage; and the ability of users to create unique personal news profiles.

The industry's business model also is changing at the local level in markets throughout the state. We are seeing more endowed journalism -- newsgathering supported by foundations or donor contributions -- as well as sponsorship activity directed towards particular coverage topics or specialty sections. In addition, we're seeing more collaboration across the various mediums.

Across many local markets, newspapers and TV stations have paired up on some level to supplement each other's coverage, by sharing plans for coverage and guest appearances or content from reporters.

In the latest collaborative effort, WisconsinEye, the non-profit public affairs network that operates 70 digital cameras inside the state Capitol, is working with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and Wisconsin Broadcasters Association to share content with participating newspapers and television stations statewide. To increase public knowledge of the state budget process, WisconsinEye has invited editors and reporters from other organizations to use its content in their own coverage or to make WisconsinEye's coverage available by providing links to its Web site at www.wisconsineye.org.

What will the next wave of innovation look like? My bet is on the ability to access more local news content through devices like the Kindle reader -- a slender, lightweight screen with Internet access and simple controls that allow users to read everything from the latest novel to a daily newspaper. Already, major national players such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune are making subscriptions available, often at a discount to the home delivery price.

How soon until these kinds of innovations become even more widespread? The surest way to hasten more personalized news content, richer Web sites and improved media technology is also a sure-fire way to help turn your business or industry around: advertising.

A significant portion of readers and viewers turn to local news media specifically for the advertising and businesses ready to share their message in innovative ways should position themselves now to reap the benefits of emerging media trends.

-- Sereno, former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, is a senior manager at Wood Communications Group in Madison. E-mail jenny.sereno@wcgpr.com or call (608) 770-8084.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Time to consider converting to a Roth IRA

By Kevin McKinley
Usually the days around April 15th are the last time you would want to consider sending even more money to Uncle Sam than you otherwise already owe.

But now may be a great time to convert your IRA to a Roth IRA. Yes, you'll incur taxes on the converted amount now. Yet the long-term gain of such a move could far exceed the short-term tax pain you might pay today.

The conversion

The IRS allows IRA owners to convert some or all of the IRAs to Roth IRAs at any time, with two main restrictions. The first is that the money converted will be taxed as ordinary income (but with no other penalties, regardless of age).

The second is that your adjusted gross income must be less than $100,000 in the year in which you make the conversion. That limit is the same whether you file single or married-jointly, but doesn't include the converted amount.

So if your income is below the limit, and you're in an overall tax bracket of 25%, converting $10,000 of your IRA will cost you an extra $2,500 in taxes, usually due by the April 15th of the year after you make your conversion.

"More taxes? Count me in!"

Okay, the prospect of a bigger tax bill today doesn't sound that appealing. But keep in mind that the taxes you pay now could be the last taxes you or ever pay on the converted amount.

The savings could be substantial. Say your $100,000 unconverted IRA grows at a hypothetical annual rate of 8% per year over the next twenty years, after which you will retire and withdraw the balance over the twenty years after that.

If you're in the same 25% tax bracket during retirement and you don't convert now, you would pay $200,000 in taxes on the amount during retirement, versus the $25,000 you pay to convert it to a Roth IRA right now.

Plus, Roth IRAs hold several advantages over IRAs during retirement, including no mandatory distribution age, as well as the fact that Roth IRA withdrawals not increasing taxation on Social Security payments.

Why now

Two factors make this an ideal time to consider converting an IRA to a Roth IRA. The first one is that since your IRA account value is likely to be on the low side right now, any taxes paid on a converted amount will also be lower than what they otherwise might be.

The second reason to do it today is if you think that you will be in a higher tax bracket during retirement than you are when you make the conversion.

Now, most people are usually in the same or lower bracket in retirement, so a conversion may not make sense while you're still working.

But can you imagine a scenario where state and federal governments raise the tax rates in the future, snaring your retirement income with a higher rate? I can, too—pretty easily, in fact.

Who should do it

So besides an income that falls under the $100,000 limit, optimism that retirement account values will be higher in the future, and pessimism that your tax rates will be as well, there is one other requirement that should be in place before you consider conversion.

Ideally, you will have enough money outside of your IRA to pay the extra tax bill, so that you won't have to take more out of the IRA just to pay the taxes—which requires incurring more taxes, so you then have to take more out of the IRA, and so on.

Sooner rather than later

Even if you meet all the qualifications described above, you may still be hesitant to make the conversion now, seeing that your IRA account values (and therefore, the taxable amounts) might go lower still in the near future.

The IRS provides some good news along those lines, because if you make the conversion now and a subsequent drop in values makes you wish you had waited, you have up until April 15th of next year (2010) to "recharacterize" the conversion at the new, lower value (with a new, lower tax bill).

The window for the "do-over" can even be extended to October 15th

of 2010, if you're willing to file for an extension. But you do only get one chance at another chance to recharacterize the conversion.

So it's usually best to make the switch now, and hope that prices rise and never come back. But if you're wrong, at least you'll get a chance to hedge against the uncertainty of the markets.

What you will know for sure, is that you're done paying taxes on whatever amounts you convert.

-- McKinley bought his first share of stock at the age of 14, and began working for an investment firm at 17. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in economics and history in 1988, he became one of the youngest licensed financial advisors in the country. He is now a Certified Financial Planner practitioner, and owner of McKinley Money LLC, a registered investment advisor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that provides fee-based financial planning and investment management to individuals and families. Read McKinley's complete bio


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The demise of the local IT consultant

By Tom Burzinzki
There was a time, from roughly 1985 to just after 2000, when it seemed that everyone I knew was starting up an IT consulting company somewhere in Wisconsin.

The typical startup scenario went something like this. A couple of guys -- and it was almost always guys -- who'd worked together for a few years as computer programmers or in sales and marketing for some large bank, insurance company, or manufacturer would decide -- sometimes after "planning sessions" involving beer and popcorn -- that they had finally had it with "working for the man."

Determined to free themselves from whatever management tyranny was crushing their souls, these budding entrepreneurs would decide then and there to strike off on their own and become independent IT consultants.

Bartender, Jagermeisters all around!

Motivated by visions of unlimited riches, career independence, and a well-funded retirement by age 50, these novice capitalists would organize themselves as an S-corporation with a company name derived by combining their names or initials with the word technology, strategy, or computer - as in "T&B Technologies" or "Smith and Jones Computer Consultants."

After buying 2,000 business cards at InstyPrint emblazoned with impressive sounding titles such as Chief Technology Officer or Business Development Executive, they'd spend their weekends and nights calling anyone and everyone they knew in IT who might hire them. Of course, they'd keep their day jobs until they found their first client or two so they could stay on their employer's benefit plan.

Back then, people with limited business acumen, and some with even less personality, could make a very good living running a small IT consulting firm -- assuming they were reasonably competent in some area of technology, had a decent network of potential clients (that is, friends willing to hire them), and a price point 25 percent or so below the rate charged by the national IT consulting firms.

Given the chronic shortage of skilled IT people in the state at the time, many fledgling consulting companies often ended up working for their previous employers.

I know of one case where a five-member IT development team, after being laid off following the stock market crash of 1987, formed an IT consultancy which then managed to get hired back by the same company that had previously laid them off when the company found to its chagrin that it couldn't maintain a critical billing system without the knowledge stuck in these people's heads.

I'd love to have sat in on the contract discussion these folks had with their former employer.

At the drop of a hat, these "Bill Gates wannabes" would happily regale you with tales of what a wonderful time they were having running their own company. How, while you had to put up with subjective performance reviews, Byzantine office politics, and a 3.1 percent annual salary bump (maybe!), they had just made enough money (in just 6 months, mind you!) to not only live really well but to also put some money down on a ski condo at Keystone -- which, by the way, they were writing off as a tax deduction. Wink-wink!!!

At a time when "going off-shore" meant taking a vacation in Hawaii and not outsourcing your entire IT function to a company in Bangalore, India, the owners of these small IT consulting companies could make some serious money helping Wisconsin companies put a computer on every desk, build applications to run on this new thing called the Internet, and address the mountain of recoding needed to clean up the Y2K bugs hidden in their computer applications.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of one- to 15-person IT companies were springing up all over -- like mushrooms after a summer rain. Some companies grew large enough to have multiple offices and hundreds of consultants working around the state -- and in a few cases, nationally.

During this boom time, it was not uncommon for the IT consultants at a company to outnumber the regular full-time IT employees.

Without this available supply of usually high-quality and reasonably priced IT consultants -- most of whom had IT degrees from Wisconsin colleges or technical schools -- many Wisconsin companies would have had a difficult, if not impossible, time installing all of the business automation software, Y2K fixes, and Internet infrastructure needed to succeed in a 21st century digital world.

Of course, the world has changed, and changed a lot, since those glory days of the late 20th century. The bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2001, along with the completion of the Y2K software retrofits, swept away many small, single-focus IT consulting firms. (For a while in 2002 and 2003, it was not uncommon, when advertising for a project manager, to receive résumés from former "CIOs" and "CEOs" of out-of-business IT consulting firms.)

Although some forward-thinking local firms have sustained (and even expanded) revenue over the past few years – mostly by focusing on less commoditized IT services such as IT strategy development, program and project management, business intelligence, Web 2.0 deployments, and business/IT collaboration – too many local firms continue to pursue the no longer viable commoditized pure staffing business model that relies on placing "butts in seats" instead of providing strategic, high-value IT services to clients.

As enterprises around the state shift their IT resource business to off-shore or out-of-state IT staffing companies (now being employed by enterprises of almost any size) and as companies continue to reduce consulting placement opportunities by an expanded use of restrictive vendor-managed staffing programs, we are likely to see a further reduction in, if not a total elimination of, the pure staffing IT consultancy in the next year or two. The current freeze on IT budgets due to the deepening recession will only accelerate their demise.

-- Burzinski is a an IT executive and senior consultant specializing in business intelligence and IT/business alignment. In his 25-year career he has worked for several Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Wisconsin. Burzinski and his family live in Green Bay.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In this economy are you the "what about ..." or the "yes, if ..." guy?

By Joe Plasterer
I recently had lunch with an old friend. Jim, one of the most detail-oriented project guys I've ever met, was reflecting upon the reputation of another of our colleagues, Gary. A co-worker of Jim's said that he hated working with Gary, because Gary was always saying, "Well what about this and what about that and what if this or that..." Jim's coworker said Gary was always coming up with "What about..." scenarios and he never did anything to move the effort forward. As far as Jim's coworker was concerned, Gary was useless because he didn't do anything besides throw up road blocks. Gary wasn't considered an asset or a contributor. He was dead weight.

Then Jim asked me, "Am I a 'What about...' guy"? He reflected that in his experience there are the three types of people, the "Yes, we can", the group which he put me in; the "What about people"; and the "No, it won't work because..." people. But Jim was concerned about self-defeating language he heard recently coming out of his son's mouth. He began to question himself as the source of that language. Thus, his introspective question of me.

In this economy, it's a darn good question. Two thoughts come to mind...

1. In chaos there is opportunity
2. Those who dare win

It's fair to say that there is plenty of chaos. You could spend a lot of time cataloging and sorting it out. There is also great opportunity. The current business models are being reinvented right in front of us. Institutions are disappearing, rising, falling and being replaced. The bold will reap great rewards. Of course, being bold requires action, not distraction.

This brings me to a favorite book about a favorite brand and their go-to group of people. The book is "The Imagnineering Workout" by the Disney Imagineers, published in 2005. For those of you who don't know, The Imagineers are the creative bunch of writers, designers, engineers, artists, musicians, modelers, producers and more who deliver unforgettable experiences at the Walt Disney theme parks, cruise ships and more.

Early in the book there is a great segment by Martin Sklar, Vice Chairman and Principal Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering. He relates the story of Buzz Price, the feasibility research brain behind the development of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Buzz was known for the "Yes, if..." method of analyzing projects which "...pointed to what needed to be done to make the possible plausible." Sklar relates that Walt liked this language, " 'No, because' is the language of a deal killer. 'Yes, if...' is the language of a deal maker."

As I look at the chaotic opportunity in front of us right now, I think about the power of "Yes, if..." to restructure the business landscape, create new entities and partnerships, deliver new products and services.

So if you are an employee or a budding entrepreneur, who do you want to be? Are you a "Yes, if...", "What about..." or "No, because" person. Who do you think your employer, your clients or your partners want to work with?

And one real world touch point, or rather sword point. An entrepreneurial friend with a great company and product that is landing national brands recently related to me that he's made a dedicated effort to let go of all pessimists on his team. The only people that can move forward are those who are looking forward with excitement.

*No actual names were used in this piece. The Garys I do know I have great respect for.

-- Plasterer is an entrepreneur and technologist. He and writer, Melinda Starkweather, provide strategic communications and online community solutions for associations and startups at http://www.starkweatherassociates.com.


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