Professional Services for Business
By PENNY SINGER
Published: September 27, 1987
WISDOM has it that in the wake of the migration of large companies to the suburbs come the professionals to service them. Yet with the exception of accounting firms, the increase in the number of major professional service companies in Westchester has been slight over the last decade, despite the record number of blue-chip companies that have moved to the county in recent years.
So said Sy J. Schulman, president of the Westchester County Association, in comparing a recent survey of professional service companies in the county to one made for the Westchester Office of Economic Development 10 years ago. ''We found the same pattern emerging,'' Mr. Schulman said. ''The number of accounting firms were the highest 10 years ago and are still the highest. Public-relations practitioners were the lowest 10 years ago, and they're still the lowest. No offices of major New York advertising agencies or major New York law firms have opened in Westchester in 10 years. Westchester's too close to Manhattan geographically to make a Westchester office necessary.''
Those companies new to the county have found a number of local public-relations firms ready to help them settle in. Such public-relations firms market their in-depth local knowledge to relocating copanies.
When MONY Financial Services decided to move 800 employees from New York to Purchase in 1984, it hired the Seroka Group, headed by Paul Seroka, who was 26 years old at the time, to develop and carry out a two-year community-relations program for them.
''We needed someone on the spot, who understood the community and who could guide us,'' said Jan Egger, vice president of staff operations of MONY Financial Services when asked why the Seroka Group had been selected.
''Paul had done some work for us before we moved up here, and when we wanted to establish a corporate presence in Westchester we consulted with him. We had no idea what sort of organization to build or even of who was who in business and government. Paul advised us, put us into visible things such as a MONY Run for the Homeless and helped us get established in the community without a lot of wasted motion. We have a very good relationship.''
When Robert D. Dacey was sent to White Plains from Boston to open a White Plains office for the Lawyers Title Insurance Corporation, he said he needed a liaison with the business community. ''Local contacts are extremely valuable in our business.'' Mr. Dacey said. ''I needed someone to introduce me around, to enhance our corporate image and my own style,'' he said, explaining why he turned to the Seroka Group. ''At first we used the Seroka Group to develop an advertising campaign for us; the public-relations assignment that is highly specialized and much more subtle followed.''
Paul Seroka, now 29, took over the business begun by his father, Joseph Seroka, after his father's death four years ago; he said his understanding of the Westchester market had helped him carve out a niche for his company in this specialized field. ''Now we're at the point of expanding out of Westchester into other areas,'' he added. ''We're also heavily into desk-top publishing, for instance, producing brochures and newsletters for clients faster and more economically.
''And in June, I joined forces with another public-relations outfit headed by Donald Levin. We opened a large new office in White Plains where we both conduct our business and occasionally work together on projects that are too large for us to tackle individually, which gives us added abilities.''
Mr. Levin, 48, a veteran public-relations practitioner, founded Levin Public Relations and Marketing three years ago in Larchmont, after a career that included 17 years with Hill and Knowlton, the public-relations firm in Manhattan, and a stint as president of the public-relations subsidiary of the Ted Bates advertising agency, also in Manhattan.
''I chose Westchester when I went into my business for myself, for the same reasons as that of most of my clients.'' Mr. Levin said. ''Because I live here. And I like having a 15-minute commute, not a 50-minute commute. I have a number of national accounts and my location in Westchester is of very little interest to them; what is interesting is the number of accounts I've been able to generate locally - something I wasn't even thinking about when I opened the office. But I've discovered that clients do like having you close by. It facilitates such things as going over campaigns and conducting meetings on short notice.''
Which is especially valuable when the client is in the fast-moving world of in-depth options trading, as is one Levin client, TLM, a Securities and Exchange Commission-registered advisory service in Port Chester, specializing in index options trading.
Robert Lesser, TLM president, said, ''We hired Don Levin for all the obvious reasons. As an investment service, we're in a very competitive business and we wanted to make the public aware of our investment system and our track record.''
Location, Mr. Lesser continued, also played a part in the selection. ''By having a public-relations counsel in Westchester, we are able to move fast,'' Mr. Lesser said. ''We get together with Don frequently, see material quickly, make needed changes fast. It saves us from marking time waiting for someone to come out from the city. And we like Don's enthusiasm and hard-hitting approach.''
Levin clients, including those in industrial and consumer products, generate sales of $1 million to $500 million a year.
A little more than a year ago, Thompson & Bender Media Relations was established in White Plains by Geoffrey S. Thompson and Dean D. Bender, former business editor and assistant business editor, respectively, of the Gannett/Westchester Rockland Newspapers Group.
''The quality of the releases we were getting from P.R. firms drove us to do it,'' Geoffrey Thompson said when asked why he and Mr. Bender decided to forsake journalism for public relations. ''Seriously,'' he continued ''I thought on and off about going into P.R. for several years. As someone in daily contact with the business community, who is constantly appalled at the low quality of the releases put out by the best companies. But the real catalyst was my age. I was 39, some 17 years with Gannett. Clearly if I was ever going to live out the fantasy of having my own business I had to move. And I figured who had a better in-depth knowledge of the area's business and real-estate community than two guys with a combined 30 years of news media experience.''
Thompson & Bender, Mr. Thompson said, made money from the start. ''Thank God we were successful, because my wife was apprehensive about the whole thing,'' he said. ''Especially about losing the great benefits I had with Gannett. But we were well ahead of our own projections early on, and the future looks good.''
Taking what Mr. Thompson called a hard-news approach to public relations, Thompson & Bender offers clients a full range of public-relations services, such as researching, writing and disseminating company news, handling media inquiries, arranging tours and press briefings and developing ideas for news stories.
''We also serve as the ''eyes and ears'' for the client in the community,'' Mr. Thompson said, adding: ''Counseling clients on matters that might have an impact on the media and the public has become one of our most requested services.''
There are exceptions, of course, he added, mentioning a recent experience he had when he called upon a large food manufacturer newly arrived in the county. He tried to convince the potential client of the importance of establishing a community-relations program. ''He listened to my pitch in stony silence,'' Mr. Thompson recalled. ''Finally, he said: 'I do not intend to go to any of those rubber-chicken dinners. I don't want to be a corporate presence. All I want to do is to be left alone to sell my product.' ''
At B. Altman in White Plains, however, the reception was different. Mary K. Hays, the store manager, said: ''Every community has a different character. When I arrived here 16 months ago from our store in Paramus, N.J., I was swamped with invitations. I didn't know what meetings to go to, what luncheons to attend, who was who or what was what. Thompson & Bender took me in hand. They guided me, opened doors, helped us establish a community-relations program for the store and also helped us launch a new image for Altman's. They handled all news events, releases and the press. Our P.R. dollar spent locally brought us the maximum effect.''
Thompson & Bender has already landed some major accounts outside the Westchester orbit. ''Most of them came to us as a result of doing something first with a Westchester client,'' Mr. Thompson said. ''Initially in this business it's the people you know who become clients. Real estate is becoming a specialty of ours; we are involved in some big projects such as the Penn Central Station development center in New Rochelle.''
But public-relations firms in Westchester, Mr. Thompson continued, work in a hard, tough, competitive market. ''Clients expect to pay country prices, but they expect Manhattan professionalism,'' he said.