Collette’s Employees Key to Soaring Profits

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 17, 2014

During one of the most devastating economic downturns since the Great Depression, companies throughout the nation put hiring decisions on hold, even slashing employee benefits and compensation. But, savvy CEOs create employee benefits and compensation, to retain their good workers and grow their businesses. Yes, they know that employees play a key role in positively impacting their bottom-line, even ensuring their organizations financial survival in really bad times.

Just listening to talk radio and you will continually hear how the high cost of doing business in the Ocean State, fueled by taxes and regulation, drives businesses out-of-state in droves. But, business is booming at Pawtucket-based Collette and its CEO and President Dan Sullivan, Jr., can easily tell you why – his 544 employees.

With Rhode Island and Nevada tied for having the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Collette, one of the oldest tour operators in the nation, is looking to fill jobs. “We are doing everything we can to improve the employment statistics in Rhode Island,” said Sullivan. “Right now, Collette is focused on growth and acquiring great talent right in our own backyard and increasing job opportunities.”

Back in 1918, when founder Jack Collette established the travel company, World War I had just ended. The Boston Red Sox had won the World Series and porterhouse steak was 54 cents pre-pound. The company’s first tour left Boston for Florida, taking their customers on a three-week adventure for just $61.50. Today, Collette offers more than 150 tours to destinations across seven continents.

Company Values Employee Longevity

According to Sullivan, Collette, now a third generation family owned company, has been honored seven times as the Best Places to Work in Rhode Island. “It’s not just a job; the people love what they do,” observes Sullivan. Whenever Collette hires someone, the company wants the employee to be there for a long time. “We value longevity. We take care of our employees like family,” touts Sullivan.

Although Collette annually offers a performance-based incentive based on the company’s overall performance to its workforce, just two weeks ago every full-time employee who was hired before a designated date received an additional whopping $1,000 bonus at a company celebration held at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Not bad when Rhode Island companies are slashing benefits and employee compensation.

At this celebration, most of Collette’s 544 employees including others joining them from the company’s offices near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and London, England, came to get a big thank you from Dan Sullivan Jr., along with his family and other top corporate executives. At a random drawing held that evening, 10 lucky full-time employees each received a $10,000 prize.

“This is to celebrate the success the team had this year,” says Sullivan. “In 2013, the company experienced a second consecutive year of record-breaking revenue and double-digit growth. With a 95-year track record, this is a major accomplishment. It’s our heartfelt ‘thank you’ to every employee for all they do to drive the company forward.”

The tradition of incentivizing Collette’s employees based on the performance of the company dates back several decades, notes Sullivan, who says that he wants all of Collette’s employees to “act as if they own the business and to reward them based on the performance of the company.”

Sullivan pointed out that the $1,000, which was on top of the company’s annual performance base incentive, was a result (77 percent of the employees received it) of one of the most profitable years in its long history. Collette is currently up over 37% in advanced reservations for 2014, too.

According to Sullivan, 82-year old Betty Sullivan, sister of the late Dan Sullivan, former President and CEO of Collette, was honored for her 50 years of service to the company. In recognizing her years of service, Collette gave her a new car.

To improve the health and quality of its employees’ lives, which in turn will enhance their productivity and competitiveness, last July Collette also built a 4,620 square foot Wellness Center that offers two levels of exercise areas and amenities for use by its employees and their families. It also includes one group exercise room, full facilities for men and women (locker room with showers, bathroom, etc.), towel service and more.

Life Long Learning

“Part of our long-term strategy is to rely on learning and critical skills development for growth and performance [of its employees],” said John Galvin, Chief Financial Officer for Collette. “Our goal is to develop and maintain a culture of learning in the organization – this is from the top down. Even the Executives are required to pursue continued learning. We want our entire team committed to continuous learning because this will make all of us more successful in the long run.”

Galvin says, “We offer classroom training for our in-house employees as well as newly hired members of the sales team. In 2013, we provided over 11,000 combined hours of training. Training will be made even more accessible to our outside offices with the use of our new video conferencing software.”

Tuition assistance is available to full-time employees who have worked here for six months, adds Galvin, noting that courses, up to two courses per semester, must be taken through an accredited program that’s job related. He notes that all courses have to be approved by an employee’s supervisor or manager and also by Human Resources Department. Once a grade is verified the employee’s tuition reimbursement will be processed.

Currently, there are 14 Collette employees enrolled in school for advanced degrees, and 215 employees are participating in multiple online training programs through the company’s innovative Learning Management System. In 2013 alone, Galvin states, “14 of our employees completed the Bryant Certificate program and four others completed degree programs earning a master’s, bachelor’s degree, and two earned associate’s degrees.”

As an employee perk, Collette even offers discounted tours to employees and FAM, or “Familiarization,” time off,” adds Jeni Wilson, Collette’s Vice President of Human Resources. “It gives employees a chance to become familiar with the products Collette sells without them having to tap into vacation time, and it is certainly a nice perk for employees and their families,” she notes.

Giving Back to Your Community

A sense of community even drives its charitable endeavors, says Sullivan, who notes that since 1997, his company has given more than $7 million to local and worldwide projects. Through employee-led initiatives, 20,000 children have received enhanced education; balanced nutrition; and clean water.

Sullivan says that Collette employees have the opportunity to designate four work hours each month to volunteer, too. In 2013, the Collette employee volunteers gave 2,263 hours to its communities.

“I feel like I get so much joy out of life that it is only fitting for me to try and give back,” said Chris Cahill, Collette’s Applications Developer. More specifically, the company allows its employees to travel worldwide and experience new cultures and Collette’s volunteer program gives them an opportunity to “give back to the communities they visit. An 11 year Collette employee, Cahill volunteers at Pawtucket Proud Day, the Rhode Island Food Bank and Tourism Cares event.

Collette has received kudos for its spirit of volunteerism. The company recently won a World Travel Market Global Award in recognition of its global philanthropic work over the past 12 months. Locally, Sullivan noted that his company was one of the local companies honored with The Ernie Marot Humanitarian Award Dinner by the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen. The award honored some of the kitchen’s most committed supporters.

Employees Are Assets

In Rhode Island or across the nation, successful companies view their employees and customers as their most valuable assets, says Edward M. Mazze former Dean of the College of Business Administration (from 1998 to 2006) at the University of Rhode Island. “To remain in business you must have the type of employee who is going to be loyal to your company and at the same time be customer-oriented,” he says.

Compensation and Benefit programs, like Collette, offers, will allow you to both motivate and compensate the best people, keeping them from going over to your competitor, says Mazze.

But it just makes good business sense to retain your employees rather then starting a job search to hire employees to fill vacant positions. “Giving a person a thousand dollar bonus is much cheaper than having to go into the market and fill the position,” adds Mazze.

Collette, like many over savvy companies, puts its dollars in its employees’ pockets, even supporting a myriad of worthy nonprofit causes both locally and globally. Collette is a perfect case study for other CEOs to look at – being penny-wise and pound foolish can be hazardous to your company’s bottom-line. Recognizing the importance of your employees’ role in meeting your business objectives will come back a thousand fold. Just ask Dan Sullivan, Jr.

For more information about Collette, visit http://www.gocollette.com.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care, medical and even business issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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Susan Sweet Takes the Reins of AARP’s Community Educational Initiative

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013 

            Accepting the challenge offered by organizers of Rhode Island AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say”, veteran advocate and organizer, Susan L. Sweet, has come out of semi-retirement, stepping to the plate to coordinate a series of “community conversations”  to continue efforts of promoting dialogue throughout the OceanState on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

             After years of paying into Medicare and Social Security, AARP, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing 40 million Americans, believes that age 50 plus aging baby boomers and older persons deserve a voice in the Inside the Beltway debates that impacts their future retirement years.  “You’ve Earned a Say” is a AARP-led national conversation committed to providing people with critical information about the domestic policy proposals being debated in Congress — simply put without the political jargon and spin.

             Regional events to be held in Warwick, Pawtucket and elsewhere – free and open to all — will be scheduled throughout the summer into the fall as Congress and  President Barack Obama begin to weigh in on policy changes for these critical domestic programs.

             “Susan has a remarkable knack for encouraging people to become actively engaged in matters that deserve public attention and involvement,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are fortunate that she has agreed to take this on. She will bring great energy to AARP’s ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ outreach and engagement efforts. The fate of Social Security and Medicare is important to all Rhode Islanders and we hope many will take part in our forums. Working with our staff and other AARP volunteers, Susan will be a tremendous asset. She is a force of nature.”   After seeing her in action for over 18 years this columnist agrees.

             A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sweet joined the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 1972, where she founded and led numerous Rhode Island Division of Women’s programs.  She worked with the General Assembly to secure the first state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters.  While at the DCA, she also wrote a grant, funded by federal dollars, to establish community health centers throughout the state.

             In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Sweet was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the RI Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE.  She initiated a first in the nation statewide Elder Housing Security program and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders in the state.

             Sweet, a Rumford resident, earned the monikor as the mother of RIPAE by initiating, planning, organizing, managing and finally directing the state program that would ultimately assist 32,000 Rhode Island  limited income seniors with state co-payment assistance for prescription drugs. After leaving the DEA, three attempts were made by sitting governors (both Independent and Republican) to eliminate the program and the advocate led all three successful efforts to restore RIPAE funding in the state budget.

             After retiring as DEA’s Associate Director in 2000, Sweet has been a consultant and lobbyist on Smith Hill for nonprofit agencies and an advocate for vulnerable populations and issues such as immigrants, domestic violence, homeless and seniors. Her clients have included the Senior Centers Directors Association, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, International Institute, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and others.

             On a personal note, Sweet, 72, cares for five adopted cats, all abandoned or abused, putters in her large backyard garden, spends time with two children and two grandchildren.  Being an expert on Roman history she reads many tomes on that era, and on world archeology and history.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

               Democratic President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP House of Representatives are trying to reach a budget deal in the coming months. President Obama has proposed a change that would slash $127 billion from Social Security benefits over the next ten years, hurting many older beneficiaries who are already living on very tight budgets stretched far to thin by costly prescriptions, rising utilities, and increased health care costs. AARP and other aging groups are pushing hard against these cuts, mobilizing their troops to oppose. 

             Social Security is a self-financed program, not a piggy bank for deficit reduction, noting that aging baby boomers and seniors have paid into this pension program their entire working lives.  According to AARP polls, older Americans expect their elected representatives in Washington to fiscally secure Social Security for future generations and keep the promise Congress made 78 years ago: that this retirement program would provide a financial safety network in their later years.

             According to Sweet, the proposed chained CPI is a flawed policy that will hit Social Security beneficiaries in their pocketbook. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes the determination, based on market prices, whether to adjust the Social Security payment to beneficiaries and, if so, by how much.  The chained CPI is a formula that assumes that people will simply buy cheaper products.  “But that is not the case for seniors, whose greatest expenses are health care, utilities and other costs that can’t often be replaced,” So, the chained CPI is just a term that means that the average senior will lose more than $2,000 in the next 10 years and even more after that.  It also means that people reaching retirement age and/or planning for retirement will have even more of a reduction.

             Furthermore, Sweet finds it extremely disappointing that a Democrat President would offer, as an opening gambit in the budget process, a reduction in Social Security benefits by using a new and inappropriate method for computing Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs).  In fact, Social Security, a program that pays for itself and has never run a deficit, should not be used to offset deficits in other programs. We should be talking about how to strengthen the program, not reducing it, she states.

 State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too

             But, with Social Security COLA cuts looming if Congress takes legislative action to endorse chained CPIs, aging baby boomers in the OceanState who will shortly retire or those already receiving their municipal or state pension checks will see less retirement income because of actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

                 “Any additional loss of retirement income is certainly a concern for public employees who, as a result of the 2011 slashes in their promised retirement income,” said AARP’s Connell. “Lawmakers need to understand that there are earned benefits. People plan their retirement based on what they are told they can count on – whether it is a public or private pension, or Social Security. As we have said for the past two years, Congress and the President should not address the deficit by pursuing harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” 

             Sweet agrees stating that “Rhode Island was at the very front of the attack on older folks with an extraordinary coup which stripped public service retirees and workers of hard earned compensation for their work. They called it “pension reform”, but that is not what it was.  Everyone knows that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game and certainly not after the game is over.  But that is what is happening around the country, in private and public employment.”

             Social Security and other pensions are not “entitlement programs” but more like insurance programs that you pay into with the promise and expectation of a certain coverage, notes Sweet. The aging advocate asks: “Should the insurance company be allowed to change the benefits upon payout? Should government (state or federal) cut benefits to retirees absent the most pressing of circumstances?”

             But, certainly in the case of Social Security, there is no emergency, but rather a timely need to insure that the program can continue to fulfill its mission, she says.

             Robert A. Walsh, Jr., Executive Director of NEA, National Education Association Rhode Island, representing 12,000 members in education and in city and state government, refers to the recalculation of COLAs by using chained CPIs as “voodoo economics.”  While supporters of this recalculation policy note it reins in Social Security costs, they should at least be honest about the fact that it personally hits the retiree financially, right in their checks, he says.  “If you’re going to cut people’s COLAs, just be honest about it,” he says.

             Many of Walsh’s union members only receive their city or state pension as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits. People retired with certain expectations [as to what retirement income they had] and to make pension changes after they retire is patently unfair, says Walsh, noting they had no opportunity to plan for the decreased income.

             Throughout the nation there is a growing movement of aging baby boomers and seniors, fueled by AARP’s educational efforts, who tell Congress to simply  “Leave Social Security Alone”.  Strengthen it for future generations, they say.

             Sweet and millions of others tell Washington politicians that “Social Security is not a cookie jar to fund other programs.”   Sweet says you can make this known to Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Representatives Cicciline and Langevin, by attending the upcoming “community conversations.”  Support their position opposing the change in the COLA and urge them to support Social Security by leaving it out of any budget deal, she urges. 

             Herb Weiss LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

The Little Plaid Guide to Living a Better Life

Published in the Pawtucket Times, June 14, 2013

In just two days, millions of Americans will celebrate Father’s Day. As I penned this week’s commentary thinking of the approaching national holiday, I quickly began thinking of my Dad, who died of a heart attack over nine years ago at the ripe old age of 89. While he had recently been ailing and was well along in years, it was quite a shock to receive the long distance phone call from my sister that he had died.

For many, Father’s Day provides an opportunity to slow down and reflect on growing up with their father or step-father, fondly looking back to earlier times.

The Life and Times of Frank Weiss

There was one thing for sure that I know about my Dad, something I could literally take to the bank. Married for over 62 years, he passionately adored his wife, Sally, who he considered to be the most important person in his life. My twin brother, James, and two older sisters, Mickie and Nancy, and then ultimately his grandchildren, would also be very important to him throughout his long life, too.

As a youngster, I remember Dad’s work ethic, always working hard to support the family, oftentimes sitting, at the wrought iron and glass kitchen table, late into the evening hour working on his weekly reports. Although he worked long hours, Dad always found time to go to a ball game or just spend time with his kids.

Dad was like the Energizer rabbit – he kept working, working and working. There was no retirement for this man, who had worked for over 33 years at Colbert Volks, a well-known woman’s clothing store in Dallas, Texas. Two years after his bypass surgery, my 70-year old Dad wanted to chart a new career course, so he began a second job and worked at C’est Simone, a national manufacturer of women’s apparel, until the mid-80s. Amazingly, during his long career in woman’s retail, he could literally see a style or clothing trend well long before it happened, always predicting what new coat styles would sell in a particular season.

Looking Back Over the Years

I will always remember…

How we shot hoops in the backyard for ice cream. Dad always lost at the last moment– we always won, getting that double-dipped chocolate ice cream as a prize.

At restaurants, I remember Dad drinking cup after cup of black coffee at Luby’s Cafeteria, with the decaf coffee never being quite being hot enough for his taste.

In his later years, Dad would oftentimes reach out to strangers in very simple ways. He always carried that roll of Susan B. Anthony dollars, giving out the coins to the lucky ones who crossed his path. “Don’t spend them,” they’re lucky coins,” he would say. Just before his funeral we found his stash of coins, and everyone who attended the service got their “lucky coin.”

He was a practical joker, but at times a little too stubborn. As a very young child, sitting at a street curb he put his small leg in front of a truck, daring the vehicle to stop. This particular time the joke was on him – the truck moved, his leg didn’t, and bones in one leg were broken.

As a teenager, Dad would tip over outhouses throughout his neighborhood. He would assure me that nobody was in them. Always the practical joker, at his sister-in-law’s house in Pikesville, Maryland, Dad walked over to her neighbor’s house and with a straight face gave him advice on how to plant a tree. Heeding his authoritative advice, the neighbor kept digging the hole deeper, deeper, and deeper, until the ball of the tree was five feet from the top of the hole. Luckily, a local landscaper would come by and inform the gullible neighbor that the hole was too deep.

Throughout his long life, Dad cared about people. During his Army days, as an officer of the day, he ordered a cook to put cold cuts out for a group of soldiers who came by to eat after being out in the rain all day. The watery beef stew was not good enough for these guys, he would later tell me. While his superiors called him on the carpet for that act of kindness, he stood up to the military bureaucracy, demanding them to be accountable to their troops.

By tapping his business colleagues, Dad would successfully raise money for the AMC Cancer Society to help those battling this dreaded disease. Later, he would be recognized by the organization for his fund-raising efforts. I often think, perhaps that is where I get my skills in fundraising.

Life’s Little Lessons

I remember during the ups and downs in my brother and sisters personal and professional careers, Dad was always there giving us practical advice, encouragement, and support, often times through little gifts.

Last week, going through a cluttered desk drawer I found a small book given to me by Dad almost 15 years ago. The inspirational book, Life’s Little Instruction Book, penned by author, H. J. Brown, Jr., from Middle Tennessee, gave simple words of wisdom gleaned from his life experience, as well as others.

This small tome caught the attention of my Dad along with the American public, becoming the first book to ever occupy the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list in both paperback and hard cover formats simultaneously. It has logged more than two years on this prestigious daily newspaper’s best-seller list, including more than a year at the number one spot. The little plaid book was written as a going-away present for Brown’s college-bound son, containing 511 simple suggestions, observations, and reminders on how to live a happy and rewarding life.

So as Father’s Day approaches, memories of my Dad come to me again, giving me his sage advice on how to have a fulfilling personal and professional life. All I have to do is go through the pages of this long lost book he gave me and read the following suggestions, observations and reminders, he marked, with a blue dot, the ones he liked the best.

Here is a sampling:

“When someone wants to hire you even if it’s a job you have little interest in, talk to them. Never close the door on an opportunity until you’ve had a chance to hear the offer in person.”

“Never deprive someone of hope because it might be all they have.”

“When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. Limited funds are a blessing and not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”

“Give yourself an hour to cool off before responding to someone who has provoked you. If it involves something really important, give yourself overnight.”

“Don’t waste time responding to your critics.”

“Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with the big dreams is more powerful than one with all the facts.”

“Give people a second change, but not a third.”

“Read carefully anything that requires your signature. Remember the big print giveth and the small print taketh away.”

“Don’t forget that a person’s greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated.”

“Don’t burn bridges. You’ll be surprised how many times you have to cross the same river.”

“Judge your success by the degree that you are enjoying peace, health, and love.”

“Seek opportunity, not security. A boat in a harbor is safe, but in time its bottom will rot out.”

“Just to see how it feels, for the next twenty-four hours refrain from criticizing anyone or anything.”

“Don’t be rushed into making an important decision. People will understand if you say, ‘I’d like a little more time to think it over. Can I get back to you tomorrow?”

“Send your loved one flowers. Think of a reason later.”

“Be prepared. You never get a second change to make a good first impression.”

“Select a doctor your own age so you can grow old together.”

“Get your priorities straight. No one ever said on his death bed, “Gee, if I’d only spent more time at the office.”

“Don’t flaunt your success, but don’t apologize for it either.”

“Be bold and courageous. When you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did.”

Most importantly, “Never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them.”

Brown’s book reminds us the importance of taking simple actions that can lead to a more fulfilling life. It’s a great gift for parent’s to give to their children. To purchase Life’s Little Instruction Book, go to http://www.amazon.com/Lifes-Little-Instruction-Book-Observations/dp/B002MAQSIO/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1370916533&sr=8-5&keywords=H.+Jackson+Brown.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.