Finding Heart on the Balance Sheet

 Westchester companies whose bottom line includes giving.



Finding  Heart on the Balance Sheet

 

Westchester companies whose bottom line includes giving.

 

By Dave Donelson  Photography by Stephen Ang

 

If Ebenezer Scrooge’s Counting House was
in Westchester today, Bob Cratchit would not only get a nice goose for Christmas dinner, he’d get an extra day off—with pay—to volunteer at a local homeless shelter. The spirits of corporate giving—past, present and future—merrily haunt the offices of Westchester companies large and small.

Those spirits are there year-round, too, reminding us that generosity isn’t just an annual event, like filing a tax return. Families without food, clothing or the prospect of a paycheck need someone’s help every day. Thankfully, many local businesses pitch in. These stories of their giving aren’t just about corporate policies; they are about people helping other people.

 

Flower Power

Frank Soriano opened the House of Flowers in Mamaroneck 32 years ago, and he’s been giving to the community ever since. If you’ve attended a fundraising gala for the American Cancer Society, United Jewish Appeal or for numerous other Westchester organizations, you’ve probably been seated at a table graced by Soriano’s centerpieces and danced on a floor surrounded by his decorations—all donated by the dapper, energetic florist from Mamaroneck Avenue.

“I basically give to as many people as ask me,” Soriano says. “If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it. I’ve been in business for 32 years in this community. If you take out, you’ve got to put a little back in.” Soriano, 50, puts back in more than just a little. Along with the floral arrangements he designs for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other parties, there are often equally gorgeous pieces he’s donated to a charity dinner-dance or award banquet. Soriano has responded generously to the Westchester Holocaust Commission, Friends of Karen, the Emelin Theatre (where he also serves on the board of governors), and PTAs too numerous to list.

“I met a lot of the couples when I did their weddings. Then I did their kids’ bar mitzvahs and I did their weddings—it’s almost like a family kind of thing,” Soriano explains. “So they don’t hesitate to come to me when they have a cause.” His advice to other business owners is to give. “You’ll get it back tenfold, both financially and emotionally.”

 

Call For Help

lorraine herman fled to my sister’s place with a baby cradled in one arm and a nine-year-old hanging from the other. The Yonkers shelter for victims of domestic violence was her only hope. Her son looked at the ragged furnishings and the splintering floors and asked fearfully, “Mom, are we going to live here?” That was 17 years ago. Last May, Herman became president of the 35-member Westchester chapter of the Women of AT&T, and she knew right away which organization she wanted to help.

Herman, a 52-year-old slender woman in constant motion, worked in nodal provisioning at AT&T. (She’s since been laid off in a corporate restructuring.) When she was named chapter president, the volunteer group had $100 in its treasury. Rallying her meager forces, Herman held raffles and solicited individual donations to raise cash to buy bed linens, pillows and curtains. She persuaded Brandman’s Paint in Hamden, CT, and Sherwin-Williams in White Plains to donate paint and supplies. Gail Frieary, another AT&T employee, dug into her own pocket to buy framed prints for the walls. Herman’s group applied for a team grant from AT&T Foundation, which makes cash donations based on the hours of work donated by employees. They also took advantage of AT&T’s policy allowing employees to take off one paid workday each year for volunteer service in their communities.

Inspired by the packages of personal-care products she received from Westchester Community Jewish Services when she lived at the shelter, Herman added “Feel Good About You” baskets to her long “to-do” list. Employees donated unused makeup and toiletries, and Liz Leicht, AT&T district manager, arranged for the company to donate prepaid calling cards. Other AT&T employees and their friends jumped on the bandwagon.

In August, the Women of AT&T descended on My Sister’s Place. Shelter manager Helen Boylan remembers what happened: “It was really, really hot and muggy that day. They came here with paint and the whole shebang. They rarely took breaks and worked 11 hours straight.” When they were finished, six bedrooms and two baths had been completely decorated and every resident had received a personalized gift basket. The effect was immediate and tremendous.

“When women come into a domestic violence shelter, they have left their homes, their beds, their everything and come into a strange environment of communal living,” Boylan explains. “We do everything we can to make them feel comfortable, but it’s really hard. The women are often surprised that someone even thinks about them. This proves that people do care.”

Herman recalls, “We were riding high for days afterwards. For me, it was an absolute dream come true.” The project’s success inspired the group to return in October to paint and carpet the hallway, and they continue to collect items for the “Feel Good About You” baskets. The group is also collecting gently used children’s books for the Westchester Jewish Community Services’ “Waiting to Read” program and recycling cellphones for distribution to battered women to use for emergency calls.

 

High Standards

a generous spirit reached across the country from Portland, OR, and touched Westchester when The Standard Life Insurance Company of New York opened its White Plains office in 2000.  From the time company founder Leo Samuel helped open the first public swimming pool in Portland in 1906, the company has emphasized community volunteering. In Westchester today, employees at The Standard help out in a women’s crisis center, volunteer for church groups and coach youth sports.  Employees are encouraged to volunteer—even during work hours.

They’re also enthusiastic participants of the United Way’s “Days of Caring,” where, this fall, they joined volunteers from 20 companies who mobilized to help area non-profits like Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry and Valhalla, Green Chimneys in Brewster and the United Hebrew Geriatric Center in New Rochelle. Fran Cambriello, who organizes the company’s volunteer efforts in Westchester, says, “People feel very good at the end of the day.  It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding.” Fifty-seven of the office’s 90 employees pitched in this year. “If they have a project, they know they can count on us,” Cambriello says.

Assistant Vice President Stan Kulesa, who heads the company in New York, points out that The Standard also has a program called “Dollars for Doers,” where employees can apply for grants for organizations for which they volunteer. “People want to contribute to their community,” he says. “They feel good when they know they’ve done the right thing.” It’s good for the company, too, according to Kira Higgs, assistant vice president. “There is a recognition that when you support a strong community, it’s good for your business,” she says. “But it’s also good for all the businesses in the community.”

 

Bank On It

from the ceo to the tellers, bank
of New York employees give back to the community in myriad ways. As Northern Retail Banking Division Vice President Eileen Conroy says, “It’s not just coming to work and opening the door, then locking the door and going home. You’ve got to make a difference in your surroundings.” And make a difference they do. More than 80 percent of the Bank’s 1,200 Westchester employees support local causes. “With 63 branches in Westchester, we obviously have a stake in what goes on in our communities and in the people who live here,” Conroy says.

United Way receives help from the Bank of New York in many ways, from senior executives like Conroy, who serves on the board for the Westchester-Putnam United Way, to employees with rakes and sweatshirts who pitched in during “Days of Caring.” Another big recipient is the New York Blood Bank, for whom the Bank of New York converted its White Plains and Harrison corporate offices to temporary blood donation centers. Junior Achievement is also supported at several levels. “In this past year, we’ve had 10 of our branch managers as in-school volunteers,” Conroy reports. “They do an hour or two every week or every other week. We are also a big participator in the March of Dimes Team Walk. The bank fielded about a hundred employees in the trek, and they yielded the largest percent increase in dollars of any participating group.” Bank of New York branches often choose additional causes to support, like juvenile diabetes and breast cancer research, based on recommendations from employees or customers. “I know branches who run car washes in their parking lot or bake sales to raise money for various causes,” Conroy says.

 

Spring Cleaning

spring cleaning

 

THE RITES OF SPRING AT MOST COMPANIES CENTER around the annual shareholders meeting, but at Combe, Inc., spring finds most of the 200 employees tramping through the woods at Putnam Valley YMCA/Camp Combe with rakes and hammers, looking for something to build, fix or clean up. “We do it for the kids to make camp a better place to be,” explains Combe’s CEO Chris Combe. “The bonus? Our spirits are energized, and we feel fulfilled when we give back to the community.”

The cleanup began in 2000, when the White Plains manufacturer of personal-care products helped the YMCA of Central and Northern Westchester purchase an 80-acre summer camp. The following spring, the employees got into the act.  On Camp Combe Day, the offices are closed, everyone piles into buses, and they go make the camp ready for the arrival of hundreds of youngsters.

“The day’s payroll and the expenses are significant,” Combe says, “but the payback proves to be a good return-on-investment. The experience helps knit us together as
a family.”

Product Manager Al Rivera led a group last year that graded a nature trail through a swampy area.  They were followed by Senior Manager of Market Research Kornel Burnacz, whose team built a 330-foot elevated boardwalk along the trail. Combe, who confesses to having limited skills as a laborer, ended up leading a group to apply preservative to every exposed wood surface in the camp the first year. Vice President of Product Safety and Scientific Support Dr. Steve Pennisi drives up to the camp once or twice a month from Elmsford after work and on weekends to weed and plant on his own time. 

The company also assists the local Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, and White Plains Hospital Center. Senior Vice President of Human Resources John Alberto says it’s a tradition that began with company founder Ivan Combe, Chris Combe’s father, and is honored with the Terry Infantino Community Service Award, named for the founder’s first employee, whose daughter works for the company today. “Each year we choose an employee who we feel has done the most in the community service area,” Alberto says. “That person gets $1,000 to give to whichever community service organization they choose.”

 

 

Dave Donelson writes on business and other topics for The Christian Science Monitor, Entrepreneur and other national publications.