Wilkins Mechanical: ‘I accept this challenge’

By: Tami Scott

Susan Heffernan- Owner, President & CEO

Condensate Repair Manhole #3, Farrell Hall SUNY Delhi

Science III Chiller Upgrades, SUNY Binghamton University

When Susan Heffernan was presented with a chance for change, she grabbed it. It wasn’t part of her plan though it certainly served its purpose.

Heffernan had just enrolled at the Whitman School of Business at Syracuse University to further her education. She had been working as an accountant but felt an inner tug to do something different. Earning a master’s degree in her field was a sensible, safe route to start.

One phone call changed everything.

She learned through a friend that the owners of Wilkins Mechanical were looking to retire and sell their business. Her friend, who was aware of her current discontent, encouraged her to inquire. And so, she did.

“The broker asked if I’d ever considered owning my own business and I said ‘well, not consciously,’” Heffernan said, noting that for years she always worked hand-in-hand with business owners. “I guess you could say in a way, I’ve always been in training for this very moment, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the right path to take, so I gladly accepted the challenge and the process began.”

On Dec. 30, 2021, Heffernan became a business owner. For 11 months leading up to that moment, she embraced every occasion to learn from the people who built it.

“I worked alongside the previous owners for a few months with the intent of hitting the ground running a little faster upon closing,” Heffernan said. “That experience certainly helped me gain some insight on what challenges they faced and what I might expect.” 

Heffernan credits her mom and grandmother — her biggest heroes — for instilling the strength to take challenges and leaps of faith because, “if you don’t you never really know what you are capable of, and without risk, there’s no reward, right?”

Looking back, Heffernan said never once did she feel like she couldn’t do it. “I had the attitude of ‘yes, you can do this.’ The experiences I’ve gained over the years have prepared me for this.’”

Heffernan is in the process of working on obtaining her WBE certification, which she hopes to achieve by the end of 2023. “Through research, webinars, and speaking with other certified WBE business owners, I know the process is quite extensive,” she said.

Challenges and rewards

When asked what are the challenges and rewards of this new venture, Heffernan responded by saying that everything is rewarding and challenging all at once.

“They feed each other,” she said. “It’s exciting to be faced with a challenge or obstacle, and finding the solution or resolution to those situations are the reward.”

Before pursuing a shift in her career, Heffernan worked in finance for almost ten years at Martin-Zombek Construction. “We were all encouraged to “think like a business owner,” “think like an entrepreneur,” she said. “At that time, it was practice; now, it’s the real deal.”

Stopping the “I’m an employee” thought process was one of Heffernan’s biggest challenges. Her background at Martin-Zombek, however, prepared her well for the new path she walks today.

“I’m grateful to have had the experience at Martin-Zombek,” she said.

Though Heffernan is the new leader of this female-owned business, she’s mindful of each team member’s purpose within the establishment.

“We all have a very important job to do here and none of us can do it [alone],” she said. “The kind of culture I’m trying to create and build off of [is] the foundation that the Wilkins’ [had] so tirelessly built. We’ve got a solid crew, in the field and in the office.”

Aside from the employee-to-employer transition, Heffernan is also conscientious of continuous learning and the value of networking. The Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA) and the Syracuse Builders Exchange (SBE) — had both served as substantial resources for her in the past. She plans to engage with each again.


“[CFMA] and [SBE] were huge for networking and were resources when I was in my previous position in construction,” she said. “I miss that education because [not only] would I learn something new, but it also validated what I knew [already]. That’s how I can be most helpful to my team, by making sure I’m continually learning and knowing  the best way to account for all the hard work my team is doing.”

Though it’s been less than a year, the rewards so far, she said, are seeing the teams come together and watching the business develop.

A little history

Wilkins Mechanical Inc. was formally incorporated in 1997 and family-owned for 41 years. That’s a history that would make anyone who succeeds the founders feel both secure in their acquisition and apprehensive about filling their shoes.

“Many people dislike change,” said Heffernan. “There are times when it’s even uncomfortable for me. So, I understood there was going to be some apprehension [and] potentially some resistance.”

Heffernan noted how oftentimes when a new owner takes over, they decide to build their business from scratch. “It makes sense that there would be some concern,” she said, “but that was definitely not my plan.”

In fact, the only changes she sees on the horizon are newer technology and more staff. For herself, Heffernan implemented an accounting software program within the first six months to keep organized in job costing and project tracking. Her next focus will be organic expansion — growing the business in a way that makes sense.

“I hope to increase employment over the next few years,” she said. “New York State has been a very good customer; we have had success in bidding OGS, DASNY and SUNY projects. ”

Heffernan looks forward to having internal conversations with employees on exploring other gainful avenues, too.

What should their customers know?

Sometimes change can shake up customers’ confidence if they’re uncertain about what to expect. At Wilkins Mechanical, Heffernan exudes a commitment to excellence.

“I carry the same values, work ethic, and pride that the former owners had,” she said. ”I respect that. I want to continue to preserve the reputation that the previous owners worked so hard to build — that’s my goal.”

Does that mean there won’t be any “oh shoot,” “oh darn,” or “I’m sorry” moments? Of course, there might be, she said, because learning curves are a natural — and healthy — part of a new process, and show humility. Heffernan advocates for customer conversations to bring her up to speed on current happenings.

“I appreciate our customers and I am thankful for their patience in our growth,” Heffernan said. Our customers have been wonderful to work with. I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know them.”

In essence, Heffernan’s view on success for everyone is about collaboration. “We’re very prideful in the work that we do because we do a knockout job. We’re welders, we’re pipefitters and nobody can weld as good as we can,” she said. At the same time, feedback is critical, too. “If our client is unhappy with a certain situation, we entertain that. We’re open to that conversation.”

“I see everything as a team,” she added. “Everybody needs support, whether it’s on a project from a project manager to the foreman to the client’s project manager — we all need to work together and that’s the kind of culture and philosophy that I’m trying to build.”

Heffernan may not have ever consciously thought about owning a business, but her experience, philosophies, and can-do attitude, together with team-building principles, appears to have put her on the path she had been seeking from the start.

Main Boiler Plant Combustion Ventilation & Reverse Osmosis System, SUNY Upstate Medical University

Wilkins Mechanical Apprenticeship Program

The Wilkins Mechanical Apprenticeship Program is accredited through the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER), which is recognized by the New York State Department of Labor.

“We encourage anyone, at any age, to join our organization and learn the plumbing, pipefitting, and steam-fitting trade,” Heffernan said.

The typical program is five years. The work processes that an individual is trained on and the minimum required hours are set by the DOL. A newly hired individual who enters the program will “test in,” which will determine their knowledge and skills to influence their entry level.

AmeriCU: Setting the Stage for Success Through Uncertain Times

By Alycia Schick

Ron Belle, President & CEO

Grand Opening, Liverpool NY Branch

Operating a business in an ever-changing economic climate can be challenging. Being in the financial services industry, credit unions are certainly attuned to shifting economic environments. Despite rising costs in 2022 and economic uncertainties ahead for 2023, AmeriCU Credit Union has continued to grow.

Established in 1950 on Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, AmeriCU has grown to serve more than 160,000 members across Central and Northern New York. The credit union also specializes in working with over 850 business partners with whom they offer financial solutions and services to their workforces.  

Ron Belle, President and Chief Executive Officer of AmeriCU Credit Union, discusses AmeriCU’s “Stay Connected” strategies that can apply to businesses of any size. 

  1. Stay Connected to Your Markets

AmeriCU understands the importance of staying connected to its members. Identifying trends and changing needs of your market is not just important, it’s critical.  So is knowing how customers want and need to connect and interact with your business. Having this level of knowledge can ensure you are providing the services and technology capabilities necessary to remain relevant as well as could provide your business an opportunity to expand. Having a clear understanding of your market also provides a foundation towards developing a strategic direction.      

AmeriCU has found there are several ways to collect market data. The credit union regularly provides surveys and encourages member feedback to ensure the credit union understands what members are looking for in the way of product and service enhancements, member service expectations, and ease of doing business. AmeriCU has also found value in partnering with research companies who specialize in identifying industry and consumer trends across the region and nation.

  1. Stay Connected to Your Teammates

AmeriCU has strategically enhanced its self-serve technology capabilities for both members and teammates. “Our members require convenience of doing their banking how and when they choose – the same applies to our teammates,” says Belle. AmeriCU has enhanced internal capabilities so they can be more efficient, for example in gaining instant access to important business data. “Beyond any technology changes, our 400 teammates are who make us AmeriCU. We live our culture every day.”

Talent is hard to find and highly coveted. Retaining and promoting is just as important as hiring new teammates. AmeriCU makes it a priority to understand what individuals are looking for in an employer, while recognizing what motivates them to achieve success. This creates a culture that allows individuals to grow and thrive in their career at AmeriCU. The credit union also puts an emphasis on training and expanding the skills of teammates, leading to improved job satisfaction and more opportunities for internal promotions. Doing so helps to improve member experience and service levels that are industry leading.

AmeriCU conducts monthly all-staff meetings that supports transparency across the organization and keeps team members connected to the credit union’s vision and mission. AmeriCU offers a hybrid work schedule to attract and retain individuals, allowing for greater flexibility and balance, along with a generous paid time-off program. Regularly scheduled department and individual meetings along with a bi-annual review processes are in place. These practices keep teammates and management connected throughout the year while cultivating an environment of learning and personal development.

  1. Stay Connected to Your Community

Being a good corporate steward is paramount to success. Research shows individuals want to do business with companies that make a difference and leave the world in a better place for future generations. AmeriCU is committed to giving back to the communities it serves. The credit union supports local charities and community organizations and understands the importance of giving back financially and through volunteerism. AmeriCU regularly engages with community leaders to understand their needs and how to partner together. Teammates are also encouraged to spend time in the community and build connections that make a difference. A benefit at the credit union is a Personal Day of Meaning, giving each teammate the choice of a local organization important to them to volunteer their time. 

  1. Stay Connected to Your Vision, Mission & Strategic Plan

AmeriCU believes that by keeping its vision and mission at the forefront along with annual strategic planning allows them to be flexible and achieve desired outcomes. “The economy has been through a difficult period these last few years with a pandemic and high inflation. We had to plan and prepare more than ever,” says Belle. “Having a strategic plan provided us the ability to adapt during these times.”

When formulating a plan, it is important to identify what you do well, understand market trends, and try to anticipate needs.  These questions, along with direct feedback from the markets it serves, helped AmeriCU develop a strategic plan that teammates can embrace and track progress towards achieving goals. From this, AmeriCU formed a strategic plan and created a business strategy focused on six key pillars to sustain success and growth. Within each pillar are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (SMART). 

AmeriCU has project management tools in place and holds regular check-ins with key stakeholders to measure progress against the plan. Strategic planning sessions are conducted to evaluate and adjust plans in response to business needs, shared or new learning opportunities, or external factors. This plan is available to the AmeriCU team and serves as a guiding light for decision making. AmeriCU has found greater structure and documentation allows it to better respond to shifting market conditions.

AmeriCU recognizes every business is different and the future can be uncertain. “In an increasingly disconnected world, real connections matter more than ever. Connecting to our members, our teammates, our communities, and our vision has truly been key to our success,” says Belle.  As a local, member-owned organization and full business service provider, AmeriCU takes pride in helping other businesses achieve their goals and is always there to offer tips and lend a hand.

AmeriCU & You. Let’s Connect. 

For more information on AmeriCU, visit AmeriCU.org or call 800.388.2000.

Drakos Clinical Laboratories: Providing Healthcare Without Walls in Central New York

COVID-19 has radically disrupted the U.S. healthcare industry, which in turn has disrupted other business industries and entire communities. Healthcare workers are experiencing burnout at alarming rates. In a 2020 EClinicalMedicine survey, almost 50 percent of healthcare workers reported they were burned out from the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2021 special report from Morning Consult found that, since February 2020, 18 percent of healthcare workers have left their roles, 12 percent were laid off, and 31 percent have contemplated leaving their jobs.

Burnout and turnover issues are worsening U.S. healthcare provider shortages and hospital occupancy issues that existed even before the pandemic. Patients often wait long hours in the emergency room before seeing a physician, and many leave before they’re seen at all. If you’re in the healthcare industry, these could be your patients. If you’re in any other industry, these could be your employees. Either way, this issue affects us all.

The healthcare industry needs new, flexible solutions to ensure everyone has the access to care they need. In Central New York, Drakos Clinical Laboratories strives to serve patients wherever they are. Drakos provides mobile, at-work and at-home medical testing, concierge medical services, and medical testing logistics for large-scale events and productions. The company is now pursuing new partnership opportunities to help better reach patients.

“At Drakos, we believe in healthcare without walls,” says Drakos Founder and CEO Heather Drake Bianchi. “If we can go into a patient’s home, workplace, or another safe location to check their vitals and do their laboratory work, it lessens the pressure on hospitals, urgent cares, and physicians. It can also be safer for many patients, especially people who are immunocompromised or have young children or older adults at home.”

Drakos’s story begins in 2020 when its CineMedics division was founded. CineMedics was created to address the unprecedented medical testing needs on film sets during the pandemic.

“When the pandemic began, there was a significant need to keep entertainment productions running safely. People’s livelihoods depended on it,” says Drake Bianchi. “This was particularly important being from Central New York where we have a relatively new, but rapidly growing film industry. We knew that our skills as first responders were a natural fit for protecting people in this moment and ensuring they could do their jobs without worrying about COVID.”

The company’s roots are in community paramedicine. Many of the staff members, including Drake Bianchi, are first responders who are experts at providing critical medical services in any environment. A scientist as well as entrepreneur, Drake Bianchi earned her Master of Science in human anatomy and physiology from Northeast College of Health Sciences and her bachelor’s in biomedical sciences from RIT. Before founding CineMedics and Drakos, she spent 16 years working in critical care medicine, both in the U.S. and internationally. She has served as a paramedic for National Geographic, Remote Medical International, and the Ocean Classroom Foundation.

In the pivotal first months of the pandemic, the Drakos/CineMedics team helped developed new protocols that became the standard throughout the film industry. They provided medical services to major productions, including the cast and crew of the Oscar-nominated “Don’t Look Up.” They were also hand-picked by the CNN conference “LIFE ITSELF” to conduct large-scale event testing for a VIP crowd. At “LIFE ITSELF,” they provided the COVID-19 testing for attendees such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, several past U.S. Presidents, astronaut Mark Kelly, actress Goldie Hawn, and more.

Over the past two years, Drakos/CineMedics has grown from seven people to a team of 50, with locations throughout the U.S. and in the UK. They continue to be sought out by major production companies as the #1 preferred company for these services.

Most recently, CineMedics provided care for the cast and crew of the new Netflix film “The Union.” Described as a “blue-collar James Bond,” the action thriller stars Mark Wahlberg, Halle Berry, and J.K. Simmons.

As a result of CineMedics’ work on the film, Wahlberg asked Drakos/CineMedics to provide concierge medical care for him and his friends and family on his current project, an Apple Original film titled “The Family Plan.”

There’s still more Drake Bianchi and the Drakos team want to do. Drake Bianchi previously assisted in search and rescue efforts for Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, and Sandy. Having seen firsthand the barriers that underserved populations face when trying to access healthcare, she has also committed the next phase of her business to using her mobile technology to bridge that gap for veterans, rural populations, low-income individuals, the sex worker industry, and the LGBTQ+ community right here in Central New York.

“Sometimes I can’t believe this is my life. It’s an incredible honor to be able to deliver quality care to so many people,” says Drake Bianchi. “I love being able to meet people where they are and ensuring they have what they need to be healthy.”

Increasing access to healthcare services became even more important to Drakos when a close colleague was diagnosed with cancer during a recent production. Seeing their friend fight cancer accelerated the Drakos/CineMedics team’s desire to serve more people.

“To survive cancer, you have to survive chemo, which means staying out of the hospital and staying hydrated,” says Drake Bianchi. “We want to reduce their exposure in the hospitals. Our friend and colleague getting their cancer diagnosis jumpstarted our work to provide these services and do them well.”

Drakos believes that this kind of care is the wave of the future, with both immediate and long-term implications. While the immediate need for everyone in our community is apparent, by 2040, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 years or older—a demographic change for which the U.S. healthcare and caregiving systems are currently unprepared, especially in light of the damage caused by the pandemic. Additionally, many older people want to age in place, creating a need for services to come to them.

Drakos aims to ensure everyone has the care they need, where they want it, now and in the future.

Looking ahead, Drake Bianchi sees boundless ways to innovate Drakos and how healthcare is provided—which could have significant positive impacts on other entities within the healthcare industry, as well as the health and productivity of our community overall.

“We have the tools to make healthcare more accessible, more inclusive, and more tailored to patients’ individual needs,” says Drake Bianchi. “We’re ready to connect with new partners who are also excited to help shape the future of healthcare.”

For more information on Drakos Clinical Laboratories and CineMedics please visit their respective websites.


Are Your New Year Resolutions Setting You Up to Fail?

By: Jason D. Nickerson, CFP®, EA, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, John G. Ullman & Associates

That’s right, I said it.  A quiet voice amongst a crowd of gurus and life coaches that surface this time of year to help you get on track.  I am the opposite of this.  Not because I don’t believe in goal setting.  As an advisor and Certified Financial PlannerTM, this is the second step in our process.  It is essential to have goals.  As Zig Ziglar said, if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.

We need to aim for something in our personal and professional lives.  So, we set our targets, goals, and New Year resolutions.  Increase profits, increase customer satisfaction, lose weight, and get our financial lives in order.  We use “proven” systems to lay out our goals and plans, we buy-in to the hype of some consultant who is going to help us set our sights, and then ultimately, we fail.  Why?  “I used the SMART system.”  “I had an accountability partner.”  “I did everything they told me to do.”  I am telling you it’s not your fault, its psychology that is built into us.

First, let’s dive into why we set New Year resolutions.  Psychologists call this the Fresh Start effect.  We pick some arbitrary point in time that we feel is the beginning.  Monday, January 2nd, whatever, this is the first step in our failure.  We make such a big deal out of the starting point.  We eat worse because we know we won’t be able to eat the junk food starting at that point.  We rest and reduce intensity and focus knowing we have this big goal we will start working towards starting at some point.  We spend a certain amount of time just getting ourselves up to a pace of work and intensity to make progress and we find ourselves already behind our timeline a short time in.  You see, not your fault.  Its psychology programmed into us.

Second, there are two places we fail in this goal setting and chasing:

  1. We set big, huge, monstrous goals, and as humans, we tend to believe we are capable of more than we are. This is related to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
  2. We lose sight of the fact that there is very little within our control.

Again, I am all for setting goals and achieving them, so please don’t take this article as you should not be setting goals.  There is great advice out there to support this process (like SMART goals).  Let me present ideas on how we can do this better, given the errors I have pointed out.

  1. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Chinese proverb): Focus on the single step. If you want to lose 20 pounds in 2023 as an example, focus on losing 1-2 pounds the first week.  Then another 1-2 pounds the following week.  That success drives motivation and motion.  This can be attributed to the snowball effect in psychology.  A snowball rolling downhill picks up speed and size.
  2. Realize that there is so much more out of our control than within our control and you won’t lose site of the goal when you get delayed or behind. At the beginning of 2020, people and businesses were on their way to chasing down those big goals and resolutions.  Then a global pandemic hit and shut down the world.  Realize there will always be something that knocks you off course.  The universe is built this way.  Use it to toughen your resolve.  Reset your timeline and then go back to focusing on that next single step.

Psychology has failed you, but do not let that be your crutch and excuse.  Set your goals, get started now, know you will fail, toughen up, reset, and get back after it.  Cheers to you all for a successful 2023!

A New Year – Same Challenges

By: Pierre Morrisseau, CEO, OneGroup

CEOs are entering 2023 better prepared after a long period of unique challenges yet facing many of the same risks and issues. According to the most recent Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey, the majority of CEOs are cautiously optimistic that their companies will perform well this year and will continue to focus on investing in key strategic areas, particularly digital transformation and talent acquisition and retention.

This is true at my company as well as we are seeing continued stress on the organization from “The Great Resignation” and “Quiet Quitting.” As a result of the tight and highly competitive market for the best talent, employees have shown that they aren’t hesitant to quit their jobs and find something that better caters to their needs. Adding to that stress, the migration over the past few years to remote work has likely permanently altered the workplace environment and requiring workers to return to the office is showing that is serves to push away top performers.

We’ve seen that pizza parties, ice cream trucks and happy hours are not going to be what entices employees to return to the office. We are working harder than ever to enrich the workplace experience on a personal level for our employees and promote the benefits–both to the employee and our clients–of high-focus collaboration.

According to some business surveys, companies are looking to redirect a portion of their real estate budget towards high-intensity, high impact team off-sites. Our firm has had great success in pulling various teams together in off-site locations to problem solving and camaraderie, as well as holding a company-wide offsite we call Day Of Learning, where all employees come to Syracuse for a full agenda dedicated to their personal growth and enrichment.

We are experiencing there is no one-size-fits-all approach for bringing our employees back to the office. We realized we needed to figure out what works best for our employees, culture, and business needs. Forcing employees to conform to pre-pandemic modes of doing business leads to increased resignations and unhappy employees. Yet new research from Microsoft found that 50% of leaders are planning to require employees to return to in-person work full-time in the next year even while this same research revealed that 52% of employees are considering changing to a full-time remote or hybrid job. We hope to learn from this research and take the corrective steps to prevent losing valued employees. For example, to ensure we are meeting the needs of the individual, it is crucial that our leadership team take the time to solicit feedback from employees.

The Fortune/Deloitte survey confirmed that nearly all CEOs (94%) expect to see talent shortages for certain roles. When asked what they plan to do, CEOs indicated that they will focus on the employee experience, looking at ways to empower employees, and manage the tension around returning to the office. The plan to offer more flexibility and predictability in hours and location of work, increased immediate rewards for taking on more responsibilities, sabbatical programs, paid leave for caregiving, and more.

We at OneGroup view this persistent employee engagement issue as a significant item on the list of operational risk. It is easy to become disconnected from employees, customers, vendors, and the community in the current environment.  As we enter the New Year, we must find ways to adapt and stay connected.

If you have questions about risk management or would like to share ideas on how you are finding success with talent acquisition and retention, I would love to hear from you. Here’s to your great success in 2023.

The State of the Regional Construction Industry

By: Earl Hall, Executive Director, Syracuse Builders Exchange

2022 proved to be a good, but challenging year for construction industry employers.  Buoyed by both private and public sector investments throughout central New York, the industry enjoyed an abundance of work but saw tighter margins as competition remained strong.  Employers endured supply chain issues, a thin labor market with labor shortages and sky-rocketing inflation that impacted material costs.  In the end, 2022 was a good year for most contractors, but of course their attention has quickly shifted to future opportunities and challenges.


Over the next 1-3 years, central New York will enjoy an extraordinary amount of capital investment by both public and private sectors; however, many of the private sector projects will be subsidized by various governmental entities.  While the normal, routine, and periodic construction work in higher education, public education, hospitals and medical facilities, manufacturing facilities and the service industry will continue, new projects of significance will draw most of the attention of the general public and many contractors.

Besides the well-publicized Micron Corporation’s 20-year investment in their Clay, NY facility, expected to break ground in 2024, contractors will be focused on Onondaga County’s new $90 million aquarium in the Inner Harbor; a $100 million STEAM school in downtown Syracuse; the $2.3 billion Route 81 reconstruction project in and around the city of Syracuse: the $108 million investment in and around Onondaga Lake/Inner Harbor; and $1 billion for development of a new Syracuse neighborhood near Route 81 in the city of Syracuse.  This anticipated construction, in addition to the Davis-Bacon federal infrastructure projects such as sewer and water treatment plants, and highway and bridges reconstruction, will provide employers with an abundance of building and heavy/highway bidding opportunities over the next 3 years.     


Labor shortages and lack of skilled labor remains a huge problem with no immediate solution.  Many of the new craftspeople entering the commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors of the construction industry are not skilled or trained to be productive for employers competing in those markets.  In many cases, contractors are being very selective on the projects they bid and occasionally choosing not to bid on projects for fear of a lack of a skilled, productive work force.  While employers and unions alike are investing in future training facilities, such will take time to properly attract and train the next generation construction worker.

Inflation continues to adversely impact contractors’ material costs, as uncertainty remains when bidding on projects.  Anticipating the cost of materials 6-9 months prior to the project starting remains a challenge for estimators and project owners alike.

Wages will increase significantly over the next 3 years.  One of the many features which attracted Micron to central New York is the relatively low cost of labor.  With labor shortages already at historically low levels, demand for skilled labor will increase wages.  Many employers are already experiencing such today, often paying premiums above those wages negotiated in collective bargaining agreements.   Although many of the New York State prevailing wage rates for construction are derived from the Construction Employers Association of Central New York’s collective bargaining agreements, many believe employers will continue to pay above those rates to not only attract new employees, but to retain their current workforce.


Although contractors across the country are experiencing many of the above-noted opportunities and challenges, central New York is well positioned to take advantage of the capital, institutional and governmental investments in our region of New York.  These opportunities do not come without challenges, but what history has shown is that construction industry employers throughout upstate New York are innovative, resilient, and determined.  This region of New York state enjoys some of the best specialty subcontractors, suppliers, general contractors, and construction managers in the United States.  Project owners are fortunate to have access to such contractors as the on-time, on-budget deliverer of construction goods and services will continue despite any challenges the future may hold.  Contractors relish in challenges as opportunities and solutions are often created when challenges are presented.

With Proper Planning 2023 Could Be Your Year

2022 was an interesting year, right? Actually, I’m sure that most of us would agree that we’ve had an interesting few years now. The manufacturing industry has certainly seen its share of ups and downs over that period. Supply chain issues, inflationary pressures, and workforce shortages are just a few of the issues that have challenged every industry, not solely manufacturing. By definition, most of us understand that we were already technically in an economic recession earlier this year. But most industries didn’t necessarily feel the extent of its pain due to the atypical path that it took our economy to get to that point. However, as we look ahead, we’re suddenly facing the real possibility of a painful recession in 2023. What can manufacturers do to prepare for this, as well as continue to plant the seeds for growth?

Despite the uncertainties around supply chains, inflation, and the overall economy, manufacturers shouldn’t necessarily rush to make cuts just yet. As we all know and have likely experienced, recessions lead many companies to lay-off employees, cut down on research and development costs, slash training budgets, and reduce marketing and sales expenditures. However, given the fact that most manufacturers are already facing workforce shortages and are still working on fulfilling backlogged orders, making cuts at this point would likely just prolong their operating pains. In actuality, manufacturers stand to gain a lot from a downturn. Recessions oftentimes reduce the competitive landscape and weed out the proverbial playing field. Survival of the fittest, anyone? The key is having a recessionary strategy, acting early, and properly positioning your company to seize the available opportunities. Effective measures and strategies include some key components.

First, manufacturers obviously need to control costs and look at their overall financial well-being. A common misconception is that companies should make extreme cuts during an economic downturn. However, the risk in doing this is that companies can sometimes cut too deeply, and those cuts may end up being made in painful areas. Companies who come out on top after recessionary periods act early to control costs, but they do it in a way that protects valuable assets by not scaling back too deeply in those key areas. Successful companies also managed cash flows and balance sheets beyond traditional profit and loss efficiencies. Now is the perfect time for manufacturers to be looking for productivity gains and process optimization. Implementing improvement opportunities and cost savings early on will reduce the need for drastic future measures when the pressure to deliver might be even greater. Automation is also an area that manufacturers should be exploring early. There are still many lucrative grants and funding options out there for manufacturers. Successful organizations think about how to drive efficiency and reinvest in their businesses for the short- and long-terms. Companies should be looking to invest in critical technology and capabilities. Manufacturers need to start planning and executing those investments now.

It may not seem intuitive or even appropriate, but economic downturns can be a great time to explore mergers and acquisitions. Recessions generally result in reduced company valuations across all industries, so some acquisitions become very attractive. Savvy investors can acquire new product lines, customers, and process capabilities at reduced prices, and they should be looking into markets that perform well when other markets are depressed. Due to the workforce shortages in manufacturing and elsewhere, companies should be retaining talent. With numerous open jobs around the industry, displaced employees should have no issues finding employment opportunities elsewhere. This will obviously lead to greater pain once the economic downturn has ended. Layoffs could ultimately hurt manufacturers more than the downturn itself. As we all know, the tight labor market is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future. It’s vitally important that we keep all of our employees right now. As things begin to pick up again, manufacturers will need those people once again.

Regardless of the potential warning signs, predicting the timing and severity of recessions is difficult at best. I’m sure that this won’t give many of you a great peace of mind, but there are steps that manufacturers can take right now to at least initiate the discussion regarding how they can withstand and possibly grow in a recession. TDO’s team is fully certified to help manufacturers make the necessary organizational changes and achieve operational excellence at all levels. Reach out today to learn more and schedule a free consultation!

CRAL’s Craig Zinserling walks the talk

By Tami Scott

Perseverance is a character strength that most entrepreneurs would agree you must embrace to accomplish your dreams. This virtue is one that Craig Zinserling developed years ago, initially through watching and learning from his parents, Jack and Marcia. He would observe how they handled life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – just by sitting around their kitchen table and witnessing how they faced their challenges with a great attitude.

“You’re never given too much that you can’t handle,” he said. “My parents brought me up that way and [I’ve] been able to adapt that into my life.”

Zinserling, who founded CRAL Contracting, Inc., is celebrating the company’s 18th anniversary this year as an indoor air quality specialist. The “acronym” CRAL comes from combining Zinserling and his wife’s first names together: Craig and Lori. It’s perfectly fitting, too, since the company’s backstory involves a collaborative effort between the couple to get it started.

“I’d always watched my father in his business endeavors, and I always aspired to have my own business,” said Zinserling, despite having worked his way up to a vice president relationship working for a national environmental contracting company. “My wife Lori – she would encourage me. We had many, many long discussions trying to figure out how to make that leap even though we had a mortgage, three kids, and a couple of car payments – how do you pay all that?”

They persisted and they made that leap but not without a multitude of sleepless nights, seven-day workweeks, and attending many of his son’s soccer games with laptop in tow. As the sole “employee,” Zinserling wore many hats, selling, managing, and actually doing all the jobs on his own.

“In the beginning, it was hard getting established, but we made it through and we were able to establish a foothold through relationships we had built here in Syracuse, having grown up here my entire life,” Zinserling added.

CRAL now has two locations – one in Syracuse and one about an hour and a half west of Syracuse, in Rochester. Zinserling said the second location was a natural fit as he and Lori had lived there for some time, too.

The relationships he’s built over time have played critical roles in the building of CRAL and where it is today. For instance, once CRAL was established, its first customer was Crucible Steel in Syracuse – and that was in large part due to connections he made and maintained.

“If I have a friend who has a tax business or a barber shop, I’m giving my friend business even if it’s more money. I want to support my friends and those relationships that I’ve developed for over 55 years in Syracuse,” Zinserling said. “It’s a small town and doing work right and treating clients well will follow you.”

Loyal customers and a good-standing reputation also mean publicity in the form of “word of mouth.” When the pandemic began, Zinserling feared the worst.

“I think with any business owner, there was complete panic. From a business standpoint, I was wondering if I’d lose everything,” he said. “How do you close a business down and have no [money] coming in, and not being able to pay people – how will we survive?”

As the saying goes, perseverance pays off. Office staff continued to come to work and “didn’t skip a beat,” he remarked. The team was able to complete the projects for which they were hired and “like manna from heaven,” Onondaga County called CRAL for work. The first testing site had been set up in the inner city, but it needed disinfecting and sanitizing, of which CRAL is the expert.

“Our crews [went in] on a daily basis with specialized equipment. They were in full PPE, and we had HEPA air cleaning devices spread out throughout their facility and we were disinfecting and sanitizing around the clock,” Zinserling said.

Soon after, this service branched out to private businesses as well as nursing homes throughout NYS and downstate into NYC. “The nursing homes weren’t set up for isolation and that’s what we do. We’re very good at engineering isolation containment and we would contain an entire wing of these nursing homes and put them under HEPA negative air pressure and disinfect and sanitize around the clock.”

Other than a few calls here and there from a private business or nursing home, Zinserling said that type of work is essentially over. Regular services, such as mold remediation, lead abatement, and asbestos abatement, can again take the lead in project acquisition.

Giving back

Zinserling remembers what it was like to find and rent office space when he was just a budding business owner himself. About six years ago, he began pursuing real estate to purchase and eventually found a building that was reasonably priced but had a large footprint – 22,000 square feet. “I don’t need that much space,” he said. 

So, he came up with an idea that stuck and worked. He set up that building, and another one that he acquired, to be incubators for young local, minority entrepreneurs. “They rent a simple office from us and a space for their startup business.”

He’s had several renters leave to buy their own real estate to work from and he said it’s so fun to watch. “It’s absolutely a joy for me to watch these young guys and gals pursue their dreams and be successful.”

Zinserling also sits on the board for David’s Refuge, a local charity that over the years has grown exponentially. The nonprofit provides respite and other support to parents and guardians of children with special needs or life-threatening medical conditions. Warren and Brenda Pfohl formed David’s Refuge in honor of their son to encourage parents to keep pressing on. David was diagnosed with and battled Batten Disease for thirteen years.

“Parenting and marriage are difficult enough under regular circumstances and on top of being a full-time caregiver, it’s extremely difficult,” Zinserling said. “They really saw the need for caring for the caregivers.”

The organization provides caregivers with respite weekends, putting them up in nice places that also support the local community. To learn more about David’s Refuge, visit DavidsRefuge.org.

Zinserling’s steadfast spirit is a trait that, by the way he chooses to live his life, does not go unnoticed. And because he has a deep, personal, and meaningful sense of meeting life’s challenges with patience and perseverance, he wants to help those he works with daily to adopt that same attitude.

Now having grown a company to include up to 50 employees, professionally surviving a pandemic, and personally helping others through complicated life journeys, Zinserling is a stellar example of success.

And so are those who have helped him achieve his dreams.

“We have a core group of staff that has been here from nearly the inception. They are the backbone of the business,” Zinserling said. “Frankly, I am no longer needed. They are so talented and caring that they run the business.”

Are We Ready for 2023?

Pierre Morrisseau

We have certainly been living through interesting times these past few years. Leadership has faced numerous challenges—some “once in a hundred years” events. Still, I am happy to report that the vast majority of our clients have thrived as they turned up their creativity and ingenuity, leaned their businesses, and opened their minds to new ways of operating. But as we all know; our work is never done. Change is the only constant, and leaders are looking cautiously toward 2023.

In a recent Gartner CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey, leadership’s greatest focus for 2023 boiled down to four “P’s”: People, Purpose, Prices and Productivity. I would agree and over the past year, we at OneGroup have doubled down in these areas as well as investing heavily in new technologies to increase our productivity and effectiveness in serving our clients in the new hybrid work environment.

While growth has always been the leading priority for any company to survive and thrive, we’re seeing from research and across our large client base, that there has been a dramatic shift in thinking toward the human capital that makes sustained growth possible. Our focus, like many others, has been on finding superior talent with superior work ethic. We have increased our training capabilities to ensure our employees have a clear path to growth and success with our company. We have organized our thinking and operations to recognize where an employee’s true talents and passion lie in order to maximize both retention and productivity. We have also focused intently on our workforce diversity and inclusion to allow us to take advantage of the broadest array of views. We feel strongly that these changes are allowing us to build a strong culture with a deep sense of purpose.

By way of disclaimer, as an engineer by education, I had always leaned toward data and process. Measuring data as gathered—a snapshot of time—allowed us to track our progress and amend our processes. However, limited our thinking to what “was” and prevented us from seeing what “could be” if we allowed for more flexibility and creativity within our workforce. I am very pleased to report that the results have been impressive. We certainly continue to capture and review data, but we now focus equally on how we can remove barriers to productivity and innovation. I believe this is creating a place that is more rewarding for employees and leading to better growth for our company.

Finally, the more troubling “P”—Prices—is a concern every leader is watching closely going into 2023. The Gartner survey showed that 62% of CEOs reported that inflation was expected to be high and to persist over the long term.

In our industry, we have been seeing steady increases in insurance premiums. There are many causes including higher overall prices for homes, automobiles, and repairs as well as increased risk in many areas including environmental, cyber-attacks, and supply chain woes to name a few. We see this putting a strain on business and draining dollars that could be deployed to increase productivity and growth. To combat insurance price volatility, we have expanded our risk analysis team, focus on identifying cost drivers and utilize our team of experts to find better solution. We also leverage our scale to offer clients more carrier options.  

Given all of the challenges we each share in our own industries, CEOs are an optimistic bunch. The latest Chief Executive CEO Confidence Index showed that CEO optimism soared 14% to nearly 6 in 10 believe that by this time next year, the country will be well into recovery. I, too, am confident that our work today will contribute mightily to our success in 2023.

I would love to hear your views and what you are navigating change. As always, I am happy to share what we are doing to grow our business.

Operational Excellence: A Journey

By: James A. D’Agostino, CEO, MEP Center Director

As its name implies, continuous improvement is a never-ending process. Whether it is the need for greater sales, increased productivity, or anything in between, there is always something that can be improved upon. Continuous improvement can occur as a major event or transformation such as a Kaizen event, or it can occur through daily, gradual improvements with a Kata approach. When organizations realize successes with these continual improvement efforts, many will claim to have achieved some degree of operational excellence. But what is operational excellence, and what does a manufacturing organization look like once it achieves a level of operational excellence?

Operational excellence does not have a singular definition that is universally agreed upon, nor should it. Every company is different, so operational excellence may mean different things. Companies measure performance and success differently, and many also have different operational goals and objectives. Operational excellence is a mindset that embraces certain principles and tools to create sustainable improvements within organizations, and it is achieved when every member of an organization can see the flow of value to the customer. Employees should actively try to improve both the value and its delivery. However, from a high level, operational excellence can be broadly defined through the following core principles:

  • Focus on the Process: When mistakes happen, the natural human reaction is to blame the operator. Deming, anyone? However, when we take a moment to analyze the issue, we should question why the process allowed the operator to perform in the manner that resulted in the mistake. We should strive to assess what part of the process the error occurred in, and then make the necessary process changes to try to achieve the desired outcome.
  • Promote Scientific Thinking: As we discussed recently with the subject of Toyota Kata, innovation comes from rapid experimentation and learning. By systematically exploring new ideas, an organization will encourage employees to do the same without fear of failure.
  • Emphasis on Value Streams and Systematic Thinking: Organizations must fully understand customer needs to create value (i.e., what customers are willing to pay for). Organizations that stop delivering customer value are not sustainable over time. In addition, systems contain many different interconnected parts that work together. It is critically important to understand relationships between each part to ultimately make better decisions that will positively impact customer value.
  • Flow and Pull: The goal of every organization should be to provide the utmost value to its customers. Interruptions and work stoppages create inefficiencies (i.e., waste), so organizations should ensure that processes and workflows are continuous. Hand-offs from one operation to the next should be crisp and tight.
  • Quality at the Source: Excellent quality can only be achieved when every part of the process is completed correctly. Workstations and processes should be structured and organized to allow potential problems to become visible immediately. When mistakes occur (and they will), work should be stopped immediately to correct the mistake before continuing, and time should be taken to understand what was learned by the mistake.
  • Respect All Individuals and Lead with Humility: Respect is a two-way street. One of the best ways to demonstrate respect for your employees is by involving them in continuous improvement efforts, especially those that affect them. This will lead to empowerment and greater engagement. Leaders should always seek to exercise humility, which involves a willingness to listen. Good leaders should also always give credit where credit is due.
  • Aim High: While perfection may feel unattainable, that does not mean that an organization should not strive for it anyway. By setting lofty goals and expectations, an organization creates a different mindset and culture.
  • Clear and Consistent Goals and Communication: Employees should continually understand and be aware of the goals and objectives of the organization, along with their progress towards meeting them. This will keep the organization aligned in its purpose from top to bottom.

Overall, operational excellence is not just about reducing costs or increasing productivity in the workplace. It is about creating a vibrant company culture that will allow you to produce valuable products and services for your customers and achieve long-term sustainable growth. Operational excellence is a journey that involves applying the right tools to the right processes at the right time. When this happens successfully, the ideal work culture is created where employees are provided for in a way that enables them to stay empowered and motivated.

Does your organization look and perform like this already? If so, job well done – you can pat yourself on the back! If not, do not fret. TDO’s team is fully certified to help manufacturers define and achieve operational excellence at all levels. Reach out today to learn more and schedule a free consultation!