by Lisa Karam Middleton
Integral to the success of Essential Data stands an office culture that promotes creativity, hard work and tangible results.
Steadfast persistence and hard work has paid off for Essential Data Corporation. For each time a company changes its programming, end-users are often frustrated with trial-and-error learning sessions and afforded little or no training by the systems people who wrote the programs. Programmers are not normally trainers, nor are they writers.
Outsourcing systems documentation and training specialists is a smart move for these companies, since they optimize their systems and thus become more profitable. What good is a new and efficient program if workers can’t figure out how to use it? When was the last time you spent a few hours on a computer problem, wishing there was a manual you could understand?
Enter Toni Allocca. With a canniness that is her trademark, she saw an emerging need early on and sought to fill it. Allocca exceeds in picking up on trends both in technology and in management. As a result, her staff has succeeded in pushing this fast-growing company to the top in its field. Encouraging family time is the protocol here; midday rollerblading in exchange for hard, tangible results; massages, golf outings and daily breakfast served in the conference room are in place to stamp out burnout – and hunger.
Raised by a single mother in the Oceanside town of Long Beach, Long Island, Allocca was the oldest of five children. She conveys the hardship, the constantly “doing without,” of her upbringing and is nearly grievous when asked about her siblings.
Two things help shape Allocca’s drive: the image of her hard-working mother struggling to raise a family contrasted by her grandfather, an immigrant who found success through real estate. She is emphatic on the importance of financial independence for women.
After earning a Bachelor of Science in marketing from Hofstra University, Allocca’s first “real” job was selling textile samples to dress makers in Manhattan for Burlington Industries. “I hated it. There was no creativity,” she says. But Allocca know how to sell from working in both retail and insurance, the latter of which provided the formal training that proved pivotal later on.
Allocca eventually went on to join Vital Software Company in Manhattan, where she was the top sales producer and had launched their tech writing division. She met and married Mark Greenspan, then a project manager at Paine Webber.
Greenspan, who has a law degree, was an independent systems consultant for Chase, Chemical Bank and Manufactures Hanover. He serves as vice president and chief financial officer at EDC. They purchased their home in Stamford in 1986.
When Allocca was made vice president of marketing at Vital with no salary increase, it provided the impetus for her to start her own company. “I expected partnership. It didn’t happen.”
Allocca left the company in 1988 to open up shop in a 200-square-foot office crammed with eight desks. In March 1997, Essential Data moved into a 3,000-square-foot space complete with a conference and copy room, and a kitchen.
Success at Vital enabled Allocca to save a respectable $250,000, which was earmarked for both business and personal expenses. “It was a hard thing. We had a big mortgage.” Opening a new company was risky business, even for seasoned professionals like Allocca and Greenspan.
The effects of the recession were already apparent. Eventually, she – and her company – were out of money, so Allocca liquidated her IRA. With a six-month-old baby and impending mortgage payments, she admits, “I was depressed.” She recalls the despair at going over the bills with Greenspan, who had said to her, “We’re going to make it, but this is not the way we’re going to make it.”
As any mother knows, enter a few more babies into the equation (daughter Simone, born in 1989, was followed by Judy in 1990. Then Joey in 1994, and Olivia in 1997), and the pressure multiplies. In 1990, just a week after Judy was born by Cesarean section, Allocca took to the phones to work on a bid that required eight trainers and seven technical writers. The company got the client. “It put us on the map.”
Cash flow was a problem, and Essential Data was rejected for a line of credit needed for expansion, despite billings of $1 million to $2 million on paper. The company struggled through the cash crunch until eventually Citibank granted the credit needed to grow.
After attending a workshop sponsored by the Women’s Economic Development Corp. a few years ago, Allocca heard about an untapped pool of experienced labor: the “mature” worker, those “burned down but not burned out by Wall Street and big business.” During this time, key staff was being assembled (most were in their 40s, 50s, and 60’s) just in time for the revved up economy.
In an industry in which burnout is the norm, Allocca knows that an overworked and stressed-out employee does not produce results. She purposely hires local workers to limit their commute and make them more accessible for family matters.
She encourages mini-vacations (three-day weekends) in lieu of the usual one to two weeks in the summer. Breakfast is served every day in the conference room. The office culture here is actually happy – relaxed, sales associates lean back in their chairs, headset attached, and speak intently on the telephone while dressed in shorts and golf shirts.
In early 1992, Betty Bennett was a treasury analyst at a photocopy company. She wondered why others were moving up while she stagnated.
Disillusioned, Bennett responded to an ad placed by Allocca in The New York Times.
She learned more background from her brother-in-law, who recruited technical writers in New York, and understood how lucrative the job could be – if she worked hard. Her first “hits” (placements) happened within three months. Nearly two years later, Bennett is uncomfortable to give her salary, but Allocca says Bennett earns in multiples of $100,000 a year. Bennett demurs, saying simply. “I finally have a job where I can reach my potential.” Most importantly, Allocca stresses; the financial independence will allow a secure retirement for Bennett.
“Toni changed my life,” says Lisa Benne, a 37-year-old sales associate who is also earning well into a six-figure salary. Benne had worked for a medical equipment company in the Midwest for 14 years. (“I was happy for ten.”) As a top sales producer, she was earning $60,000, then was passed over in favor of a male colleague for a promotion. Answering Allocca’s ad did indeed change her life.
“I used to shop for dresses; now I shop for mutual funds. I’m excited to go to work. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the hard worker. Commissions are not capped. The sky’s the limit,” says Benne.
“She has talent,” adds Allocca. “Lisa was dead-ended. She got burned.” Benne is slated to head up the company’s first remote office, scheduled for Chicago where, in addition to her own hits, she will make overrides on the five or so consultants that will be hired there. Her income potential is likely to exceed a half million dollars, according to Allocca.
For Sheila Klatzky, a single mother in her early 50s, her former job kept her on the road – and away from her daughter – about four nights a week. Deeply in dept, Klatzky met Allocca and says the potential clicked for her.
Though not professing to be a technical expert, Klatzky had years of sales experience, which helped push her income up. Way up. It has given her a “whole new perspective on life.” Out of debt, Klatzky will return to her White Plains home, which she rented out in 1992 because she could no longer afford to live in it.
This life change “has meant a tremendous amount for my daughter as well as myself,” she says. Klatzky was able to send her daughter to camp this summer and asserts that her job at Essential Data “has allowed me to think about the future and what kind of future I’d like.”
Getting on Board
In interviewing candidates for sales associates, Allocca looks for a background in executive sales. “If they’ve sold to executives, those skills are transferable,” she says. She trains her people in the “art of the phone.” Once the appointment is made, Allocca makes the pitch. Sales associates are trained from observing Allocca in action.
While the competition charges about $160 per day for a consultant, EDC bills only $80 to $90. Combine this with a commission schedule that is four times the industry norm, and you wonder how in the world the company makes money. Despite the lower profit margin, Alloca says, Essential Data makes up the difference in volume and service.
Associates are expected to keep a minimum of five consultants on billing, which is estimated to gross $800,000 to $1 million. There are seven sales associates in Stamford; Benne has 18 consultants on billing; Bennett 23 consultants, and Klatzky, 16. The first expansion in Chicago, with a planned staff of five, should bring in between $5 million to $10 million. Allocca says these figures are “Ambitious, but conservative.” You do the math.
The company’s client list reads like a Who’s Who in the Fortune 1000: Aetna/US Health, American Express, Canon, Chase, Citicorp. Dow Jones, Ernst & Young, Exxon, General Electric, The Hartford, IBM, Kraft General Foods, Merrill Lynch, Time Warner and United Technologies are just some of Essential Data’s clients.
The job market for technical writers has taken off. With well over 100 writers on billing across the country, Allocca says consultants that work for Essential Data rarely need go elsewhere.
Clearly, supply exceeds demand, with writers (called consultants) commanding rates of up to $120 an hour, depending on the location. Many of these “consultants” came from completely different fields but went into technical writing for the flexibility – and the pay. A full year of work can rake in well over $100,000.
Here, too, you’ll find older, seasoned workers. Allocca also encourages this field for women, which allows for easier schedules without giving up salary. The length of the assignment varies depending upon the project, and the sales associates worry about placing the consultants, freeing consultants to concentrate on the task on hand and not on where their next job will be.
“Tech writers are getting savvy,” says Allocca. In 1980, her then boss hired a technical writer at a salary in the $20s. “No one could have projected the boom for tech writers.”
Once a client is signed and the consultant in place, a needs assessment is done and a task list is scoped out. The consultant usually works on-site to review current documentation and/or interview end-users and programmers, and learns the client’s software. Needs vary from user guides, systems and programming documentation, operations manuals, standards development, procedure manuals, proposals and specifications, desktop publishing and graphics, to feasibility studies.
Essential Data provides stand-up-training instruction: manuals, course development, and multimedia courseware. “We’re in a growth business,” Allocca explains, meaning that projects have become longer in duration, what used to take six months to accomplish has stretched out to nine.
There are 25 factors to be considered in the matching process. Interviews are conducted over the telephones, references checked. EDC will then recommend two or three applicants and the client will make the hiring decision.
“There are mismatches. You have to fix them,” says Allocca. Greenspan adds that rarely – “maybe two or three out of hundreds” – is a client dissatisfied with their consultant, and that mostly stems from personality differences or unreasonable expectations on the part of the client. After the company sent a consultant to Reader’s Digest, it was discovered that the person simply did not do the job, and the client wanted their money back. In the end, Greenspan personally went in to do the job. “You pay for that 100 percent guarantee. It gives you integrity,” says Allocca.
In an industry fraught with turnover, finding competent workers is always a challenge. But as programmers leave their jobs, it creates more of a demand for the services of companies like EDC. “Quality and price will give us the edge over any new competition,” she says.
No business is successful without carefully executed strategies. Sales associates are urged to get organizational charts on companies; to call early or late to catch the key contact; and to get familiar with support staff, often the gatekeepers for the higher-ups.
Allocca says if a sales associate is not in the $100,000 range by the end of the first year, they won’t last. It took Benne five months to make $140,000.
Little Time for Hobbies
With a flourishing business and four children, Allocca has little time for hobbies other than regular visits to the gym. Her newly found success has given her the opportunity to travel, she says, at any time. Keeping her household running smoothly is eased by Josette, the housekeeper, whom Allocca fondly calls “a member of the family.”
But the homefront wasn’t always orderly; Allocca says she has hired (and fired) nine nannies, mostly in the first year, and admits she could not have excelled had she not had Josette.
But money alone is not the story here. “There’s passion, lifestyle, then there’s money, in that order,” she observes.
Allocca says she was always heading in this direction. “It is a dream come true, but not a dream that was unfathomable.”
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