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Drivers Wanted – Summer Road Tour 2011

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Joe Haley, as he hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

OK, so there is not one person in this car who would have a second career as a driver. While we’ve done a stellar job getting ourselves from point A to point B we all have our issues.

Andy Cohen Can't ParkI’ve been the nighttime driver delivering us to our final destination of the day and in for the night. And although I can be a vocal driver, I have yet to drop any major F bombs, nor have I shown any other driver that they are “number one” even though that guy in Tennessee last night was asking for it. Just get out of the fast lane already and let me by. My problem is that I’m extremely fidgety, trying to get comfortable every five minutes. And last night it was difficult considering that a certain someone (cough-Melinda) kept turning my heated seat on. I thought that somehow a malarial infection was creeping up my back. But my biggest hurdle was that we were driving due west as the sun was setting and you see I can barely see over the steering wheel as is and the visor was not low enough to help shield my eyes from eventual blindness.

Bad Parking JobAnd then there’s Andy who’s done a yeoman’s job steering us through several states. But alas, he is not without his occasional lane-drift or the fact that since he’s from New York he thinks that the left lane is for him and him only. Oh, and turning lanes, well those are only suggestions. However, Andy’s biggest problem is that he cannot commit to a parking space. We noticed it way back in Gaithersburg, MD. Five open spaces Andy, just pick one already. And, when he does finally select a spot he has a hard time 1. pulling all the way in and 2. placing the vehicle between the lines. It’s like he’s afraid or something; parking is his kryptonite. And let’s not forget about his love/hate relationship with the Bossy Pants GPS.

Last and certainly not least there is Rumble Strips, or as everyone else knows her, Melinda. Granted she had a tough leg to drive yesterday but let’s first start at the beginning. Pulling out of a Starbucks in Bethesda, MD she clipped a curb and told us that she doesn’t do turns well in big vehicles. “What have we just gotten ourselves into,” Andy texted me. However, Melinda earned her nickname as we were winding our way through the Smokey Mountains. Look it’s a challenging job: You have ricochet walls to your left, tracker trailers to your right, tight lanes and, well, rumble strips that alert you that you have in fact left the roadway. Compounding the situation is scenery, beautiful scenery; it’s so beautiful you just have to take it in, even when you’re driving. Wait, what? So there we were on the road, off the road, on the road, off the road, etc.   
Thankfully we’re flying from Dallas to San Diego on Friday.

PS. So as we finished our trip in to Bentonville yours truly was driving. We were 72 miles away, had a quarter tank of gas and on a potty stop. Andy suggested we get gas but I thought we could make it. Besides, the one gas station in town had prices posted from like 1979 or something. (A buck 75 for regular, really?) At one point up and down the Ozarks we heard a “bing” and no one was sure what it was as we were jamming out to tunes and talking. The second time we heard the “bing” I saw that we were very low on gas and there was nothing in sight except beautiful hills. Yikes, we might run out of gas. No one was more nervous about it than me as I was so sure we would get to Outdoor Cap, no problem. At one point I imagined the three of us running out of gas, walking to find someone to help, or dialing 911 or watching as Andy’s eyes were picked at by vultures … But thankfully we made it to a sleepy town at the bottom of a hill thanks to Melinda and assistance from Miss Bossy Pants. I actually shifted the SUV into neutral every time we went down hill to conserve the precious few drops of petrol we had left. When we hit rock bottom, we found a pony tailed dude who gave Melinda directions to the nearest gas station and a few winks. We made it. Relief. But, then again, I knew we would …

PPS. Andy still can’t park.

Andy Still Can't Park


A Visit To Bluegrass Country

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Melinda Ligos, as she hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Melinda and Andy at BluegrassThree hours of road time later, we are welcomed to Bluegrass Promotional Marketing, in Charlotte, where it becomes clear immediately that this place is full of, shall we say, “characters.” One guy, Jim Grainger, a seasoned account executive, proclaims he can hum fight songs from all major universities. Indeed, he begins following me around humming (or, more accurately, imitating a trumpet while buzzing his lips together in an unnatural way) the Maryland Terrapins fight song. (He’s at a loss, however, when Andy and Joe tell him they attended Vassar and Lockhaven, respectively. Apparently he hasn’t mastered any schools beyond the ACC.)

Bluegrass DinerAccount executive Gentry Harrington, a sales superstar who is a past winner of Advantages magazine’s Sales Rep of the Year award, is engaged in a contentious game of cornhole with an IT staffer. And Mark Hansen, sales support manager, is in the company’s kitchen, designed like a diner, whipping up Toasted Almonds for Andy and Joe. As other staffers hear him fire up the blender, they come running in, cups in hand. Bluegrass’ CEO, Fred Parker, is out spending the day with board members, but he is even represented at this little party: His photo is blown up on his chair, and a message to Andy promises more advertising dollars for Counselor magazine.

To be fair, antics like this aren’t always part of a Bluegrass afternoon: The group is letting off some steam after a pretty intensive board meeting this morning, according to Sharon Dailey, who heads up HR, among other things. That, and the fact that they just witnessed the exciting U.S.-France women’s World Cup game in the kitchen, which ended in victory for the U.S. women.

Bluegrass DrinksHey, those are two rather exciting events for one day. Whatever makes these guys and gals roll, the mix of personalities and the injection of fun has resulted in some serious growth at the company over the past several years. Parker’s motto is “Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it, plan more than you can do, then do it,” and it’s clear that this culture is full of creative, can-do people.

But there’s time to get back to business tomorrow. Right now, it’s time for another Toasted Almond and a round of cornhole.  

The King Lives—in North Carolina

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Melinda Ligos, as she hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Elvis LivesThere was no need for cups of coffee at our early-morning stop to Brand Fuel, situated in a suburban corporate park just outside of Raleigh, NC. As soon as we walked in the front doors, we were surprised by a three-piece live band. Andy immediately jumped into place, playing the air guitar next to a guy who was strumming an electric banjo. We shouldn’t have been too surprised by the early-morning concert. Music is a passion of co-owners Robert Fiveash and Danny Rosin, childhood friends who launched the 25-employee firm together. A musical theme is carried through the entire office: A statue of the King is at the front entrance. A piece of artwork made front trombone slides adorns the conference room. And a 1965 eight-track tape player that only plays Elvis music serves as a dispute resolution device for Rosin and Fiveash. “When we’re just not seeing eye to eye, we put Elvis on and we seem to be able to work everything out,” Rosin tells us.

Melinda and the KingAs we nosh on animal-shaped waffles and fresh fruit with employees during a “Kick Summer in the Face breakfast” (Rosin and Fiveash want to motivate employees to push through the summer slump), Brand Fuel’s staffers regale us with stories of last Halloween, where employees were encouraged to pull pranks on one another the week leading up to the big day, which is celebrated with a rousing costume contest at the local waffle house. Each year, the antics get bigger. Last year, a vegetarian’s office was filled with chicken legs; an environmentalist entered his space to find trees with daggers in them; and one unfortunate woman found her office filled with balloons—and nail clippings from multiple staffers.

Lest you think that all of this activity is frivolous (and working at Brand Fuel is lots of fun, the employees tell us), it’s clear that Rosin and Fiveash carefully plan every event, and attach a purpose to it. “We really try to re-invent ourselves with every event that we do,” Fiveash says. “It’s all about getting the creative juices flowing.”

And that’s clearly what the duo has pulled off at this morning’s event. As the band members start unplugging their equipment and employees rush around cleaning up the morning feast, there’s excitement in the air. One group is readying the conference room for a marathon brainstorming session, in which they’ll need to come up with a program to help Citizen’s Bank (one of the company’s many large accounts) come up with a plan to acquire high-wealth customers from a Fortune 500 competitor.

Rosin and Fiveash already have some great ideas as to how to help Citizens get the job done. But if the duo happens to hit a snag during today’s session—well, they’ve always got The King to help them out.

Why Does The GPS Have Such An Attitude?

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Joe Haley, as he hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Miss Bossy Pants (With Apologizes To Tina Fey)

Our GPS has an attitude. And we think it’s because of Andy. It all started yesterday when she decided that Andy was going the wrong way and told him to make a u-turn. We were cruising south on a highway in Virginia and there was just no way he was crossing that grassy median to go … in the wrong direction.

Well that was the end of it and since then she’s been real bossy. Veer off course slightly or pull off for gas or a bathroom break and she’s all over us. With attitude she starts with her “recalculating” BS. OK, we get it.

So just this afternoon in Charlotte she was guiding us through the city and we were sure she had it in for Andy. And he wasn’t making the situation any better, missing turns, waiting until the last minute to veer right, etc. But, queeny had a little flaw that we discovered about this time … her pronunciation is less than stellar at times. “Charlottestontown road” was pronounced “Charlottalotta.” Foolishly we mocked her and it was all over. When heading out to Nashville later that afternoon, she insisted on sending us left onto 485 south but the left entrance was for 485 north. So not sure what to do we looped about a bit until we finally got our bearings. She had her laugh at our expense, and we finally got on our way.

Things are calm now and we can only hope that she drops the attitude and Andy behaves himself, not to incur her wrath again. If it gets any more testy, who knows where we’ll end up; Des Moines anyone?

Food Tales From The Best Places To Work Road Tour

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Andy Cohen, as he hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Road Eats: A Banner Day

Eating on the road is really a hit-or-miss proposition. For every roadside stop that you’d like to forget about the moment you leave the establishment, there’s also those stops that make you want to turn around and ask for more as you walk out. Well, consider today a home run when it comes to food on the road.

Eating CherriesIt began with a breakfast provided by the fine folks at distributor firm Brand Fuel in Morrisville, NC. Not only was the coffee extremely welcome and needed after a late night of driving, but the waffles in various shapes (pigs, cows, and some sort of barn-like-looking thing that I partook in) stole the show. A nice barn-shaped waffle with some bananas and real maple syrup…a perfect start to a day that would cover about 600 miles on the road.

The next stop, though, was a genuine find. Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlotte, NC, has the hands-down best fried chicken you will ever eat. This isn’t fancy cuisine by any means, but trust me: It’s the juiciest and most-perfectly-cooked fried chicken you can imagine. Yes, we had to eat it in the rental GMC Acadia (sorry, Hertz), because Price’s doesn’t even have any seats in it. But the extra effort was most definitely worth it. If you’re ever in Charlotte, don’t walk, run to what we’re now affectionately referring to as “the coop.”

BiscuitsOf course, no road trip is complete without car snacks. Today’s were limited – I’d say that waffles in the morning and fried chicken, tater tots and hush puppies for lunch are probably enough food, but well, you know, snacks are still important. I wasn’t expecting to eat nearly a whole bag of Sour Patch Kids, but hey, what happens on the road stays on the road. And, while I didn’t eat the fresh cherries that Melinda and Joe scarfed down in the middle of the day, the effort that went into this could only be pulled off by a road trip pro. As I was speeding along the highway toward Charlotte, Melinda opened the front passenger’s seat window, grabbed the box of cherries in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, and she, yes, cleaned the cherries outside the window of a car going let’s just say more than 65 miles per hour. Very admirable—check out the accompanying pic. 

Today’s dinner didn’t take the same amount of road tour ingenuity, but the Sagebrush Steakhouse in Newport, Tennessee certainly didn’t disappoint. A 10-ounce ribeye (medium-rare, thank you), wedge salad, side of mac-and-cheese, and an ice cold Bud Light topped off a perfect day of road eats. Oh, and the fresh-baked cheddar cheese biscuits were awesome. See me eating one in the pic. Let’s hope tomorrow brings similar results.


2011 Summer Road Tour Lands in Morrisville, NC

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

The Counselor caraval has now reached Morrisville, North Carolina for a Best Places to Work destination: Brand Fuel. Here are some photos:

Brand Fuel Headquarters

Andy and Melinda arrive at Brand Fuel.

Live Band at Brand Fuel

Awaiting the editors, a live band! How cool!

Brand Fuel Logo

The Brand Fuel logo.

Hanging at Brand Fuel

Joe and Melinda hanging with two heads at Brand Fuel.

Andy Cohen Rockin' Out

Andy’s rockin out!

Scenes from an SUV

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Joe Haley, as he hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Our GMC Acadia is well equipped with two sun roofs, leather seats, satellite radio and everything else a trio of editors driving cross country could want.

While we are enjoying our ride, Andy is a bit perturbed with the sun roof. When it’s closed it doesn’t quite seal and you can hear air rushing in. It’s somewhat annoying, but Andy tried several times to fix the problem to no avail. The sound of rushing air, though, was replaced a few times by the sound of the rumble strips along the side of the road.

But it might not have been the sun roof that was the most trying thing of the day. You see, with the satellite radio you get all sorts of stations and because of that I was introduced to music that I normally don’t listen to. And by the end of the day I have to say that I am sick of those songs.

See I’m a classic rock sort of guy and we had a virtual rave careening down I95. And it was the same three songs over and over and over. Something by Pitbull and Ne-Yo (no clue! But I’m supposed to grab someone sexy tonight and say “hey.”). Then there was a Katy Perry number where all three of us sang TGIF repeatedly. And a song called Party Rock or something that, to be quite honest, had that same bass and drum beat as the other songs.

When we pulled in to Raleigh we had probably heard each song at least 12 times each. Seriously. So today, I’m hoping for a little 70s or 80s music on Sirius. Stay tuned.

Next Stop On The Tour: Richmond, VA

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s three editors as they hit the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

It’s time to head further down the Beltway, and we take off for the three hour trek to Richmond to meet the staff at New Clients Promotional Marketing, which is located in a sprawling one-story space outside of downtown. We’re greeted at the door by Jeff Hall, and his wife Teki Hall, the owners of Real Clients, sporting Hawaiian leis and beers snuggled into New Clients logoed koozies.

As we head into the building, 25 employees (the other 10 work remotely in various locations on the east coast) are engaged in a full-fledged Hawaiian luau. After we get our own leis, Joe, Andy and I are ushered into a party room (the company’s VP of special products, Betsy Flynn, is the official head of the “fun events committee”), which is adorned with palm trees, cutouts of hula girls, and, inexplicably, a Betty White mask. Wine and beer are flowing, and employees are noshing on barbecue.In various rooms, games are set up, and several sales reps are playing Cornhole in the hallway.

Joe HaleyBefore we know it, we’re roped into various games ourselves. A woman places an elephant trunk of sorts on Andy’s head, and he’s forced to knock over water bottles; Joe is given 60 seconds to keep three balloons in the air (unfortunately, he fails twice), and I have to jump up and down to release a box of ping pong balls that are attached by a belt to my waist. If this scene sounds bizarre, it seems perfectly normal to this group of hooting and hollering employees. Next, everyone heads into another room to view a slideshow of pictures from past company events, including an annual family picnic at the Hall’s home.

While the employees seem to naturally operate as a true team, Jeff, who owned a medical supply company before buying Real Clients in 2000, (Teki joined him in the business a year later), said he “saw inefficiencies at the company as soon as I walked in the door.”

The company still used typewriters, and had only one computer in the building. Since then, the Halls have moved the company’s headquarters to a bigger location, beefed up staff and made significant improvements in the company’s technology infrastructure. The investments have helped New Clients net big deals with the Philadelphia Eagles and numerous pharmaceutical firms.

Andy CohenBut even while making these changes, the Halls also worked hard to shift the company’s culture. “We want employees to look forward to coming to work,” Jeff says. The first thing he did as the company’s new owner was eliminate the mandatory Friday 5 p.m. meetings the previous owner had implemented. Then, he explained to his new employees that they had autonomy to make their own decisions. “We don’t like to micromanage anybody,” he says. A few years later, Betsy came to the company, and the fun events committee was born.

While it’s time for us to hit the road, we’re left with hugs, and a parting gift from Betsy: a Hula girl with double stick tape on her feet, which will serve as the perfect dashboard adornment for the rest of our 3,000-mile trek. More tomorrow from … Tennessee and Arkansas.

Stop Two: Bethesda, MD

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s three editors as they hit the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Chris HuebnerWearing blue seersucker pants, a pressed white shirt and custom red white and blue Chuck Taylors, Chris Huebner ushers us into the third floor offices of Mac Mannes, which is located in a sleek, modern office park, he’s eager to share with us the company’s past. Mac Mannes was a real person, who started the firm as a gift shop on G Street in Washington D.C. in the 1930s. A few decades later, his son John took a $2,500 order for logoed knives for a trade show, and quickly realized the promotional products business was more lucrative.

Huebner joined the company in 1985 as a mail sorter, and took over as owner in 2007. Now with 12 employees, Mac Mannes is poised to do $5 million in sales this year and has a variety of clients, many of which come from the education and association markets. Huebner prides himself on being the voice of reason at the company when employees encounter stressful situations. Indeed, a poster in his office, which is also brightly decorated with his daughters’ artwork, carries the message, “Keep calm and carry on.” “I sometimes have to sit down with one of my employees and say, ‘Just because the water bottles are pink and they should be blue, the world isn’t going to end.’”

Mac MannesHuebner’s calm demeanor aside, he thinks the key to the company’s high employee retention rate is the company’s ability to develop creative programs for clients. “We’re not good at bidding situations,” he says. “Nothing’s ever about price for us. It’s how creative we can get, which makes this a fun place to work.” Indeed, Mac Mannes showcases its creative side in frequent self-promotions. One recent one was a contest in which prospects were given a prize if they could identify the flavor of logoed lip balm they received. (It was watermelon vanilla.) Another one promised a pair of custom-made Chuck Taylors (like the ones Huebner is wearing) to anyone who sends a picture of themselves donning an American flag T-shirt while striking the most impressive patriotic pose. The company’s reception area showcases an impressive area of creative promotions, each which has an accompanying case study, ranging from a lapel pin set created for the division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to a miniature version of the White House.

“Why do I stay here?” said Patty, the company’s vice president of operations, as we browse the collection of commemorative gifts and promotional products. “Look around at all of the cool stuff we do. It’s never the same thing here every day.”

Day One: Our First Stop In Maryland

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s three editors as they hit the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Chaka KhanWhen our GMC Acadia rolled into Sonic Promos, which is tucked inside a small office park in Gaithersburg, MD, we were immediately put to two tests. The first test: We had to meet the approval of Chaka Khan, an elderly black Chow who patrols the office like she owns it. The pet of Sonic husband-and-wife owners Seth and Julianne Weiner (Seth started the business with a friend in 1997), Chaka is considered the company’s HR rep: One growl or snarl, and a potential hire is out the door. “She really has a good sense of character,” deadpans Julianne Weiner. Luckily, Chaka sniffs us and even poses for a picture wearing one of our Best Places to Work t-shirts, so we obviously pass muster.

The second test: The Sonic team puts us through a round of A Minute to Win It, a version of the TV game show that the staff has carefully designed for visitors. “It’s a great way to break the ice at vendor meetings,” Seth Weiner says. Just recently, a BIC rep had to build houses for three little pigs out of BIC pens, and blow them all down within 60 seconds.As the staff of 10 assembles around us in the company’s front room, Seth explains our task: He hands me a logoed Frisbee, and Joe and Andy must stand on either side of the room, attempting to throw six ping pong balls into it. Everyone cheers wildly as I hold the Frisbee steadily and Andy and Joe frantically try to land the balls within 60 seconds. Luckily, we’re victorious, and Seth promises us logoed fanny packs for our efforts.

Seth WeinerThis is only one of the antics you might find if you visited Sonic. On any given day, staffers might be having high tea for a staffer’s anniversary, heading out for laser tag, or painting one of the many George Washington heads they scored from a supplier. George’s likeness has been turned into, among other things, Shrek, Hannibal Lecter, and a crash test dummy.

While fun activities like these keep employees’ creative juices flowing, they also serve another purpose: The Weiners post videos of office frivolity on Facebook, and see it as a good relationship builder among clients and vendors, Julianne says. For example, when supplier reps view the videos of their competitors playing Minute to Win It, “there’s a lot of trash talking on our Facebook site,” she says. “People complain if we give a competitor an easier task than they got when they were here. It’s pretty funny. But what it really does is show off the human side of the company.”

With a handshake and a promise of fanny packs to come, we bid good-bye to the Sonic Crew and head off to Bethesda, where we meet Chris Huebner, the president and CEO of Mac Mannes.

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