Team Approach Helps Firm Grow

Michelle Benjamin’s experience as a nurse gave her some guidance in running her company, Benjamin Enterprises Inc., which began as a vendor of janitorial and cafeteria services.Benjamin said that since she started her company, now headquartered in Yonkers, she followed an overall procedure that every nurse is taught: “Assessing the situation, coming up with a plan, implementing that plan and then … (keeping in mind) your goals.”

Whether she was dealing with patients or clients, she said, “I always enjoyed listening to people and relieving pain.”

Benjamin Enterprises grew in annual revenues by 431 percent from 1998 to 2003 and in 2004 the company grew 42 percent, Benjamin said.

Its growth comes largely from listening closely to what bothers its client companies, then working up a plan to provide that service, she said. Nowadays, the company also provides security guards, warehouse operations and even maintains heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems.

The company, which has 450 employees, was recently named one of this year’s “Inner City 100” fast-growing companies by Inc. Magazine and the Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. The company ranked 53 on the list.

Its customers include Entergy Corp. and Consolidated Edison of New York Inc.

“For us, it’s always been about finding out exactly what the client business is,” Benjamin said. “We sit down with them, usually on a monthly basis. Very often it may not be about talking about the business at hand, but we do the face time.”

Getting a good understanding of a client’s business often allows Benjamin to suggest services her company may provide –sometimes services in fields that the company hasn’t taken on before.

BRANCHING OUT

After its founding in 1985 with janitorial and cafeteria services, the company in the early 1990s branched into traffic control–which usually means providing a flag person at a construction site. By 1999, the company started its security guard services, then by 2001 it was providing “transportation hub support”–staffing and running warehousing, mailroom or sometimes transportation services for a company. A few years ago, the company started training its employees for heating, ventilation and air conditioning maintenance.

Training employees–who Benjamin calls “team members”–is another big element in the company’s success, she said. “What makes us different from the competition is that we really recognized very early that the true star is the team member…. At three o’clock in the morning, when they’re interfacing with that customer, they’ll do the right thing by that customer.”

Franklin Mitchell, contract officer for the U.S. Army, said that in the five or six years that Benjamin Enterprises employees have been doing custodial work at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, “I didn’t get any complaints. I would have to rate that as outstanding.”

The company can retain good employees by offering them free seminars, often on Saturdays, about preparing to own a home, personal budgeting or even opening bank accounts. A “corporate cultural specialist” will often work with employees to coach them individually about meeting certain goals.

Employees earn points for performing well, and with a certain number of points they can take free training classes about being security guards or cafeteria food management, Benjamin said. That allows them to work in jobs they may prefer and that may allow them to earn more money. Starting wages for beginning workers are typically $17 an hour, but HVAC-trained employees can make $40 per hour.

“Heating and ventilation (education) was in fact done intentionally so that we could give a career stream to our team members,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin can often be found at the company’s training facility in Middletown, which is relatively close to Benjamin’s Orange County home. In 2002, the company moved its headquarters to Yonkers and in April it opened an office in White Plains.

LEARNING DISCIPLINE

Benjamin was raised by a single mother in the South Bronx who helped keep her out of trouble and gave her a good work ethic. Another major influence from her childhood was “Sister Reid,” a woman who knew Benjamin and her mother in church. Reid led a group called the Pathfinders, which was made up of girls aged 8 to 17 and was something like the Girl Scouts, Benjamin said.

“There were etiquette classes, so I learned how to walk, learned how to eat properly, how to set a table, and then I remember a drum and bugle corps…. These kids, many from single-parent households, didn’t know what discipline was. We would have all our exhibitions in the summertime. It could be 90 degrees out, sweat is pouring out, all around you flies are buzzing, but you could not move a muscle.

“I can see that same discipline has carried me as an adult–the same focus,” she said. “It’s about being so focused about what the end result needs to be and not paying attention to the flies. You get a lot of distractions, but I learned you have to keep your eye on what the goal is.”

Benjamin started the company in 1985 from a spare bedroom of her home, then in Washingtonville. Within several months, she was able to set up offices in Middletown and start training employees. With trained workers, she was soon able to get clients, she said. One of her very first employees, Jeanne Ferguson, is still with the company, Benjamin said.

Her husband, Hugh, then an engineer for IBM in Peekskill, could see the possibility of layoffs approaching, she said, and in the late 1980s she convinced him to join the company, where he is vice president of operations.

STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS

MICHELLE BENJAMIN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF BENJAMIN ENTERPRISES INC. IN YONKERS

Education: Bachelor’s degree in nursing from Bellevue School of Nursing of Hunter College, N.Y., certificate from Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College.

What advice would you give to those who want to succeed in business?

“1. Stay close to the customer. 2. I would say, use the best talent or develop the best talent. Very often the talent is right within house and it’s a matter of uncovering that. 3. Network with your client–even to the point of expressing what your goals and desires are.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in running the business?

“People are complex. They are! … It really sometimes just takes time to understand what the true issues are. It’s not always as it appears.”

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in running your business?

“Probably not spending enough down time.”

What do you do to unwind?

“I know what I like to do. What I loved to do, before I started the business and had kids, was sit down and read and play soft music. I used to take vocal lessons. I was professionally trained as an opera singer. I love music. But it’s gone by the wayside. I just don’t have enough time. I love art also. I love to go to museums. I love Monet. I love contemporary, abstract art.”

Article from: Westchester County Business Journal | June 13, 2005 | Gurliacci, David