Tag Archives: Companies

Expanding Times, Expanding Horizons

June 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Networking groups offer ideas and kindle relationships, but they also have drawbacks. “John” only sees the same people at his networking luncheon. “Bill” might desire to join the coffee group, but he needs to open his store by 8 a.m. And “Jane” doesn’t have $200, let alone $1,000, just to come once or twice per year. 

Michelle Schrage and Jay Miralles can relate, which is why they started Business4Business Professional Society in 2014, using a different business model that includes a variety of networking events like morning coffees, afternoon luncheons, and evening gatherings. 

They have been a part of traditional networking groups, including some based on professions such as bankers, drywallers, or real estate agents. Schrage and Miralles decided to bring together connected, motivated, and forward-thinking people, regardless of profession.

In the first couple of years, B4B’s leadership team and board were concerned that not having a regular, predictable meeting schedule might be making it difficult for businesspeople to connect and engage. It soon became evident that this strategy was actually advantageous. 

“We now embrace it,” Schrage says as the organization enters its fifth year and has hosted more than 100 events, or nearly two events per month. “Our members are busy professionals and we’ve found that they want access but not necessarily commitment…we have a core group of regulars but there are always new people from various walks of life and industries.”

As a single mom to a 13-year-old son and a busy professional herself, Schrage understands firsthand how important flexibility is to today’s professionals. 

The B4B founders discovered early that a lot of people did not want to pay a membership fee for a professional networking group. So, although a $249 one-year all-access pass allows unlimited entry to all events, attendees can also simply pay as they go on a per-event basis, Schrage says. Every event is self-contained and offers something different; i.e., in March, B4B was the first group to host an event on Blackstone Social’s new patio. 

“We maintain that our events are held at places that have a unique, interesting aspect to them whether they are brand-new, not accessible to most people, or not known to most people,” she adds. “It’s a great way to bring people together.”

Event elements may include workshops, efforts to support nonprofits, gala-quality fundraisers, speakers, and behind-the-scenes tours in addition to face-to-face networking opportunities. Speakers have included Firespring CEO Jay Wilkinson, Peter Kiewit Foundation Executive Director Emerita Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, and motivational speaker Ron ‘Gus’ Gustafson.

“We’re constantly thinking, ‘what’s something new?’” Schrage says. “It gives us a lot of flexibility to keep our eyes and ears open to amazing people, amazing endeavors, and amazing companies we feel the community can benefit from knowing about.”

B4B regular Christopher Pfanstiel, director of business development for Hustad Companies Inc., says B4B has presented opportunities to connect with new people and businesses, and even helped him gain a new client or two.  

“I really enjoy B4B…it’s networking that’s done in a loose fashion versus a very canned environment,” he says. “You meet new owners, and managers, and entrepreneurs…you get to meet the key players and learn a little bit about them and their businesses.”

B4B succeeds because developing a face-to-face rapport is still important and relevant in the age of electronic communications, Schrage says. 

“When you get to share space with somebody, and read each other’s body language, and make eye contact, and exchange ideas that aren’t necessarily electronically communicated, you create strong bonds,” she says. “I think people are missing the mark if they rely too much on technology.”


To find out more about upcoming events, visit b4bsociety.com.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Michelle Schrage

Moving Day

March 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The days of building an office park in the suburbs are gone.

Companies in Omaha and across the country are picking up and moving to hip urban hubs of their respective cities, letting go of a long-standing notion that most of the nation’s workers want to work and live in slower, quieter areas of town, far away from the noise, crowds, and chaos of city life.

Today, as executives strive to attract tech-minded young professionals who want to work, shop, eat, and play in the same neighborhood, Omaha companies are increasingly mindful that a key way to do that is to relocate to some of the fastest-growing—and just plain coolest—areas of the city. Even if they were not in the suburbs before, corporations are seeing that relocating in the most popular areas of town is good business.

“People like urban,” says developer Jay Noddle, president and CEO of Noddle Companies, which is working with engineering and architecture firm HDR Inc. on building a new site for Kiewit Corp.’s new headquarters in north downtown Omaha. “It’s pretty hip, and it’s important for companies to be in walkable communities. They need to be able to retain their workforce and they want to be able to use their office environments as a working tool.”

The trend is so hot that even suburban areas are transforming into urban oases. OBI Creative will be an anchor tenant at the burgeoning Lumberyard District at 135th and Q streets. The six-block district includes an Eat Fit Go, First American Title Co., and Local Beer & Patio, and is attempting to attract young creatives and professionals.

Executives at OBI Creative, which is currently located near the popular Midtown Crossing, thought the area resembled more urban locations like Dundee or Benson yet was more convenient for their staff.

“The majority of our employees live west of 90th Street,” says Lana LeGrand, vice president—OBI leadership and operations. “At the same time, the location afforded us easy interstate access to serve our clients regardless of the location.”

The Lumberyard District was the perfect setting for an advertising agency, she says. 

“When we saw this area, not just the potential of the office space, but the vibe of the neighborhood, we felt we had found a location where our employees would thrive and our clients would love to visit,” LeGrand says.

And while HDR is helping other companies move, the architecture firm itself is moving its corporate headquarters from 84th Street and West Dodge Road to one of the most hip and bustling areas of the city—Aksarben Village—later this year. The new, 245,000 square-feet of office space will house retailers and employ more than 1,100 people. HDR opted to move because it had outgrown its longtime location and its executives’ desired to bring as many people as possible to the location. They also want to provide plenty of parking and entertainment amenities for workers and clients.

“I’m excited for our employees that we will be moving to a new headquarters by the end of this year,” HDR Chairman and CEO Eric Keen says. “It’s an exciting new chapter for us as we begin our second century here in Omaha.”

Rex Fischer, HDR’s senior vice president and corporate relations director, says Aksarben Village will “fit our needs and will serve us well into the future. We stand to be more effective in how our people work and collaborate…a modern headquarters stands to be an excellent recruiting tool.”

Kiewit’s new downtown location, which is expected to be ready as early as 2020, was chosen because of its closeness to Kiewit University, the company’s new training center. Noddle says company leaders were mindful of the move’s potential influence on north downtown.

“It’s full of hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues, and this can only benefit those businesses,” he says. “Moving a major business in a community is one of the things leadership might think about. Others will follow, I think, as it will inspire other businesses to look very hard at that area where everything is growing.”

Adds Noddle, “The image of bringing 600 new, stable, and well-compensated jobs to north downtown can and will have a positive impact in that area.”

Noddle says Kiewit’s move to north downtown will help open up its current space in the growing Blackstone District, which has been booming in recent years. Young professionals will be more attracted to Omaha when they see there are diverse urban areas for them to work and live in.

“It’s very attractive to current and future employees,” he says. “They could go anywhere, but they will choose to come here.”

HDR’s headquarters under construction in Aksarben Village

This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

New Business and Marketing Ethics

January 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Owners of new businesses have myriad ethical problems similar to the problems in mature businesses. The difference is that new business owners don’t have years of experience to help them more easily make sound decisions. But practice and a good process can lead to long term, honorable business growth. Case in point:

Dear Ethics Adviser,

I’m passionate about making life easier for folks. I’ve started a concierge service I sell to businesses that they, in turn, provide to their employees. I’ve been able to get a few accounts, but I’m not growing as fast as I’d like. Part of my problem is not knowing how to price my service. I think I’m overcharging. It’s not as if I can ask my competitors what they charge.

A colleague of mine recommended a strategy. He said to ask a friend who does procurement at a local firm to put out a request for proposals (RFP) for concierge service. The friend wouldn’t really want the service, mind you, but would put out the RPF simply to collect bids from companies and then tell me what they charge. This way, I get the best information about the market and won’t overprice my service. Would you recommend this strategy?

Dear Passionate,

While the strategy is practical and can yield fast results, it is not ethical and should not be used. Ethical decision making requires that you think far, wide, and high about your options.

In this case, when you think far, about consequences for all, you notice that competitors would anticipate that they could get business from their work. They would use valuable time completing your fake RFP that they could instead use on live prospects. You are creating harm. Would you want someone to do this to you?

When you think wide, you recognize all of the duties and obligations you have to different people. A fundamental duty is to try to tell the truth. In this case, you are being deceptive in order to make life easier for yourself. This is wrong.

When you think high, you ask yourself, “What kind of person do I want to be? Would my mom be proud if she knew about my action?” The moms that teach us to be strong and true would not approve of this way of finding pricing information. It’s a short cut, and not noble.

So when you stop to think far, wide, and high, you see that this pricing strategy is wrong.

What can you do instead, Passionate?

Rather than seek a fast solution, get your mind around the fact that business wisdom comes from the school of hard knocks and it can’t be shortchanged. Experiment; try one solution, then another; succeed sometimes; fail others. Engage with business leaders you truly admire to get advice. Keep your values front of mind, and profit has a great chance of following.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.

This column was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

The Silicon Trail

March 28, 2017 by

When United Airlines’ first daily nonstop service flight from Eppley Airfield to San Francisco International Airport eased away from the gate in September 2016, Randy Thelen made certain he had a seat.

The senior vice president for economic development at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce saw the importance of that 7 a.m. flight—believed to be the first regular nonstop service between the two cities in a quarter century. Shortly after 9 a.m., he was on the West Coast, in the fertile Silicon Valley, ready for business.

Despite Omaha’s firm footing in the Silicon Prairie—with tech giants like PayPal, Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo all maintaining a significant presence in the metro—Omaha long struggled with a serious shortcoming when it came time to recruit more. The same shortcoming didn’t help local technology startups secure financial backing from the apparent over-abundance of thick wallet in the Bay area.

Getting from Silicon Valley to Omaha’s corner of the Silicon Prairie was more than a hassle. It usually required at least one connecting flight, stretching a three-hour nonstop flight into nearly a full day of airplanes and airports … and that’s the delay-free version.

“As much as we don’t want location to be a barrier, there’s a very real situation where Silicon Valley investors won’t fly somewhere if they have to switch planes,” says Dusty Davidson, the CEO and co-founder of Flywheel, an Omaha-based startup that builds and hosts WordPress websites. Davidson is also known for his role in creating Silicon Prairie News and one of the largest entrepreneurial tech conferences in the region, Big Omaha.

“It’s not the connection, it’s the time,” he adds.

The required connecting flights cast a pall over Omaha’s distinct advantage as a low-cost jewel compared to the Silicon Valley. Omaha’s lower cost of living and more affordable housing helps save companies on their largest expense: wages. Add in the various business incentives available from the state, along with a strong talent pool and sound infrastructure, and Omaha makes an attractive option for startup and established tech companies, with that notable exception.

“We came up short on the connectivity or on the flights in and out of Silicon Valley,” Thelen says.

Then United Airlines made San Francisco’s International Airport the nation’s 25th airport with regular nonstop flight services to and from Omaha. This spring, a 26th regular nonstop Omaha route will open between here and Houston via Southwest Airlines.

“Now, we’ve taken away that competitive disadvantage, and we’ve been able to promote it as an advantage,” Thelen says. “It really has changed the conversation as we try to continue to build that pipeline between here and Silicon Valley.”

“The ability to have direct service does have an impact on the businesses that choose to do business here,” says Nancy Miller, vice president of operations at Travel and Transport, a national travel booking company based in Omaha. “I think it helps Omaha businesses.”

That an airline would add a regular nonstop flight to San Francisco lends credence to claims of Omaha’s growth as a potential hub in the Silicon Prairie.

“The Omaha economy really seems to have been doing well over the last couple of years,” says Dave Roth, deputy executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority. “It’s just a really positive combination of Omaha and the airlines for those additional flights.”

Omaha has popped up on several national lists as a new hot spot for tech startups. SmartAsset named Omaha the best city in the nation to work in tech in 2015, and Nebraska has been No. 3 on Forbes’ list of Best States for Business for two years running.

Thelen used his first flight to the Silicon Valley to meet with a dozen tech companies, some who already have outposts in town, and few others he’d like see set up shop.

“For the cost of one hotel stay and a pretty simple flight in and out, you can get two full business days of work without the hassle of changing planes and the risk of getting delayed,” Thelen says. “The convenience of business travel just went up exponentially, and you can expect that connectivity to continue to grow.”

Executives headquartered in San Francisco can more easily visit and engage with their Midwestern operations. Or, employees based in Omaha can more efficiently meet with leadership in Silicon Valley. Officials at PayPal and LinkedIn—which employ about 2,800 and 300 people, respectively, in the Omaha area—say there is frequent travel between the Silicon Valley and their operations in Omaha, but exact figures were unavailable.

“To have firms like that, that now have much, much easier access back and forth, frankly it makes our location all that more integral to the operation because it’s a simpler connect now,” Thelen says.

He added: “That simple flight makes a big, big difference.”

And even homegrown startups can take advantage. They can get twice as much done on recruiting trips from the valley, whether they are looking for talent or financing.

Davidson, the CEO at Flywheel, says the increased connectivity will indeed make a big difference for local companies raising money. There still remains a lot of work to put Omaha “on the map” with more sources of local capital and slowing the export of the state’s top technology talent, to name a few.

“I don’t know that you’re able to look at [direct flights to San Francisco] and say, ‘Hey, look, we solved the problem,’” he says. “I think there’s 50 things that are contributing, and what you really want to do is, just one at a time, start whittling away.”

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Office Furniture

February 24, 2017 by

A Survival Guide

Office furniture dealerships work with companies large and small to reshape their work environments. Here are some observations to keep in mind once the walls have come down.

Variety is key

Don’t just scrap the panels: Effective open-plan work areas need to offer a range of spaces. A “layered” approach may work best. Provide spaces for those people who really need quiet to focus, whether they just find it easier to work in quiet or they are more introverted. Successful spaces work when everyone in the company, regardless of personality or role, feels comfortable and confident in accomplishing their work.

Plan for the entire space, not just the corners

Create “enclaves” for collaborative working while making sure those spaces do not disrupt people sitting nearby. While it is important to provide areas for private/personal time, do not place them so far away that the trek to reach them is not worth it. Create “adjacencies,” spaces offering a phone booth or enclave where you are not walking more than 20 feet to reach them.

Design to meet your company goals

Your company needs to ask: What are our goals? “More collaboration” is a start, but “more collaboration between the product team and the sales team” is a goal that you can design your office around. Companies today often say they want to be more like Google. What is it about the workspaces at Google that you find appealing, and is that something your office’s culture can embrace? It may be more important to uncover how the company identity is expressed through physical space.

Establish Rules

It’s not enough to create spaces; you have to enforce boundaries. Open spaces create noise.  There’s just no getting around it.  Rules may be needed about how areas can be used. Certain spots for working in require a “no phone call” rule.  No exceptions!  It sounds very corporate and Big Brother to some people, but when you are working in an open space, protocols can be very important.

Get bosses out of offices

Sometimes managers may still need to function behind closed doors, but letting higher-ups spend their days inside old-fashioned private offices while employees work in the open sends a bad message. It also isolates them from the very benefits open plans promise. Once exposed to this new approach to the workplace, many executives say, “Wow, I’ve learned more about my own company in two weeks than I did in the past two years.”

While open-plan offices do not fit every company’s culture, they have come a long way from the “cubicle farms” of the past. More importantly, they are delivering an increasingly comfortable way to work.

Doug Schuring is the director of sales administration at All Makes Office Equipment Co.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

The Brand Brief

February 23, 2017 by

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that greatness is a state of mind. The bad news is that others’ minds decide your state. As with many things in life, this is true for people as well as brands. A brand is, in its most basic description, what people believe, feel, and think about a company. Companies like to think that their brand (or “brand image” if you’re old school) is whatever they’re currently telling the public it is. Which is rare. However, that is the goal. Because when what people think of you matches up with what you claim to be, you’ve hit the branding bull’s-eye.

Great branding is built on a solid foundation. This foundation is commonly referred to as a “brand platform.” Used correctly, a brand platform can act as a launching pad for your branding efforts. Conversely, it may resemble the 10-meter Olympic diving platform, except, instead of water, the pool is filled with buy-one-get-five coupons that cause financial ruin and death by a thousand paper cuts.

A brand platform defines who you are as a company in a way that everyone in the organization can understand—even Chuck in H.R.—by codifying beliefs into a framework that doesn’t change with the shifting winds of accounts receivable. The platform becomes the guiding document in how you speak about the brand and how the brand acts. It is no use marketing something and then failing to live up to those promises operationally when people finally find time to “act now.”

There is no standard template for a brand platform. Most advertising agencies that deal in branding have developed their own process and format. I prefer a classic format that defines a brand purpose (why you exist beyond making money or even your current product), brand position (who you are relative to your competition and audience), brand personality (five or six adjectives, none of which are “sleepy”), and brand affiliation (the type of people your brand wants to attract). Feel free to Google these terms. Other platforms include brand archetypes or variations on all of the above. The important thing is that the platform brings clarity, unity, and direction. So beware the agency attempting to sell you a process that they themselves don’t seem to fully understand—just because it comes with a cool infographic doesn’t make it actionable.

I do not recommend trying to create a brand platform on your own. Anyone inside the company is too close to the situation to be completely objective. Nonetheless, you should be actively involved in the process. An agency that insists on doing everything themselves before delivering a final document fait accompli is probably doing a lot of finding and replacing on a platform they first wrote in 1998.

Once your platform is in place, use it. This is not as obvious as you would think. Weigh marketing decisions against it. Use it to filter operational objectives. Spread it throughout the company so that when an employee gets asked about where they work, they give an accurate answer. Eventually, because branding is a long game, your brand will be cohesive and consistent. And all your marketing will automatically be strategic in tone and message (and media, too, if you’re paying attention).

You will still need to decide on creative directions and tactics, of course, but you won’t have to do the heavy lifting of figuring out foundational principles every time you write a new tweet. Because you will know who you are. And, more importantly, customers current and potential will, too.

Jason Fox is a freelance creative director and writer. He can be found at jasonfox.net and adsavior.com.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.