The business of improvement

Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia’s Far North­east cam­pus hos­ted a re­cent North­east Small Busi­ness Con­fer­ence. Dave Yunghans, of Con­stant Con­tact, talks about the value of so­cial me­dia to reach po­ten­tial cus­tom­ers. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

“Our job is to help busi­nesses and provide ser­vices to busi­nesses.” — Chris Hess, the Cen­ter for Small Busi­ness Edu­ca­tion, Growth and Train­ing.

Craig White has worked for Phil­adelphia Gas Works since 1980, rising to pres­id­ent and CEO in March.

For about a dec­ade, White worked with his pre­de­cessor, Tom Knud­sen, to re­hab­il­it­ate the im­age and bot­tom line of the city-owned util­ity.

In an ap­pear­ance May 19 at the first North­east Small Busi­ness Con­fer­ence, White ac­know­ledged that PGW might not of­fer the cheapest rates for its 500,000-plus res­id­en­tial, com­mer­cial and in­dus­tri­al cus­tom­ers, but the util­ity strives to provide su­per­i­or ser­vice.

PGW is not a polit­ic­al pat­ron­age haven, White said, adding that the util­ity looks to hire the most qual­i­fied work­ers. There are about 1,650 em­ploy­ees.

Back in 2001, a failed billing sys­tem caused 50,000 cus­tom­ers to avoid pay­ment, lead­ing to a $1.2 bil­lion debt. The call cen­ter wasn’t much bet­ter.

“It would take them an hour to an­swer the phone,” White said of call-takers.

Today, 80 per­cent of calls are answered in 30 seconds or less, meet­ing an ac­cep­ted in­dustry stand­ard.

While PGW once bor­rowed al­most all of the money needed for cap­it­al ex­pendit­ures, it now in­tern­ally gen­er­ates 33 per­cent of the ne­ces­sary funds.

When cus­tom­ers are giv­en a four-hour win­dow for ap­point­ments, a PGW rep­res­ent­at­ive ar­rives dur­ing that time frame 92 per­cent of the time.

Cus­tom­ers used to con­trib­ute, on av­er­age, an ex­tra $200 a year to off­set what the poor could not or would not pay. Now, 85,000 poor cus­tom­ers are on a pro­gram that al­lows them to pay their bills based on house­hold in­come and the num­ber of chil­dren in the home.

“Last year, we col­lec­ted ninety-eight cents on the dol­lar,” White said, adding that the fig­ure was 86 cents in 2003.

From a good re­la­tion­ship with the gas work­ers uni­on to the in­tro­duc­tion of en­ergy-ef­fi­cient units, PGW is on firm foot­ing, ac­cord­ing to White.

“Now, we’re start­ing to move in the right dir­ec­tion as a busi­ness,” he said.

The May 19 con­fer­ence was held at Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia’s newly ex­pan­ded North­east Re­gion­al Cen­ter, at 12901 Town­send Road.

The cen­ter is home to the new Cen­ter for Small Busi­ness Edu­ca­tion, Growth and Train­ing, which opened on April 20, the same day that CCP cel­eb­rated the grand open­ing of its ad­di­tion.

The con­fer­ence key­note ad­dress by White fit in with the busi­ness cen­ter’s mis­sion.

“We’re go­ing to be bring­ing in people who are in busi­ness who can help oth­er busi­nesses,” said Chris Hess, co­ordin­at­or of the cen­ter.

The cen­ter, which is fun­ded by a fed­er­al grant, of­fers mostly free ser­vices to people who want to start a busi­ness or ex­pand an ex­ist­ing one. It part­ners with the city De­part­ment of Com­merce and SCORE, a busi­ness ment­or­ing or­gan­iz­a­tion.

The third-floor of­fice space is home to a com­puter lab and smart board, and busi­nesses are wel­come to drop off pro­mo­tion­al bro­chures.

“Our job is to help busi­nesses and provide ser­vices to busi­nesses,” Hess said.

One of those ser­vices was the con­fer­ence and catered lunch, at­ten­ded by about 100 people.

TD Bank and Com­munity In­teg­rated Ser­vices, an em­ploy­ee re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion busi­ness sponsored the daylong pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment con­fer­ence.

After net­work­ing, break­fast and the ad­dress by White, there were work­shop ses­sions on bank fin­an­cing; do­ing busi­ness with the city and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments; us­ing and op­tim­iz­ing so­cial me­dia; and ac­cess­ing cap­it­al.

Al Tauben­ber­ger, pres­id­ent of the Great­er North­east Phil­adelphia Cham­ber of Com­merce, mod­er­ated a pan­el dis­cus­sion that in­cluded suc­cess­ful loc­al busi­ness own­ers Sally Dan­ciu (Sally’s Flowers), Beth Con­roy (Con­roy Ca­ter­ing), Nancy Moroz­in (Din­ing Car Res­taur­ant) and Sam Di­Mat­teo (at­tor­ney).

CCP presen­ted plaques to Al­le­gra Print & Ima­ging own­er Mike Lo­gan and the North­east Fam­ily YMCA ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Paula Green for out­stand­ing per­form­ance as for-profit and non-profit com­pan­ies, re­spect­ively.

“This is a great re­source for our com­munity, and it was a great sem­in­ar all-around,” Tauben­ber­ger said. “We’re glad to sup­port it.” ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­

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