Innovative in the RBJ - March 3, 2017

A Bold Approach

By KERRY FELTNER

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Innovative Solutions CEO Justin Copie takes a risky move to challenge the company’s status quo.

By KERRY FELTNER 

What is one way to retain your employees and grow your company? Tell them to look for another job.

That is what CEO Justin Copie and the management team of Innovative Solutions did last year to shake up the 28-year-old information technology company. "It was a bold statement. It was a bold request, (but) it wasn't mandated, so you didn't have to do it you didn’t want to," he said. "'We're challenging people to think outside the box so much in the tech industry in general; in this space, we always have to be moving. I really wanted to challenge the status quo.”

The directive was part of the firm's strategy in creating a new benefits package for 2017, one that focused on the modern workplace. Some left, but the company's retention rate remained the same compared with the previous year.

The firm is seeking to be a leader in workplace culture, one that will be dominated by millennials. 

According to a 2013 study conducted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP, the University of Southern California and the London Business School, millennials seek different options in the workforce than generations before them. Things such as work flexibility, a strong team culture and the need for work-life balance are key drivers for the generation born from 1980 to 1995. Innovative Solutions has responded to the demands of its current workforce, which consists of many millennials, while also preparing for the future.

The firm's benefit changes come on the heels of a buyout in 2016.

Last year Copie, 34, became CEO and bought Innovative Solutions from Bob Titus, who held the chief executive position for nearly two decades. Titus is now chairman of the company, which is a dba of Innovative Data Processing Solutions Ltd.

In 2015 the firm grew revenue by 10 percent, and last year the firm grew by 5 percent. This year the target is 7 percent growth in revenue. The firm is looking to expand to a new space in the next year.

“I felt like it was the perfect time for us to get people to go one of two ways,” Copie said. “They were either going to see what else was out there in the market, and they were going to realize that there was something much better that they couldn't get here, or people were going to understand that there really wasn't anything outside of the organization." 


The firm focuses on providing a variety of IT services to small and midsize businesses in health care, finance and manufacturing. Most of its clients are based locally. 

The company has 70 employees and expects to add five more staffers by the end of this year. Since January, the firm, which has its headquarters at 3495 Winton Place in Henrietta, has brought on 10 employees. 

Joseph Bertles is transitioning out of the company after nearly four years with the firm. "I applied and interviewed during the period when Justin asked everyone to apply elsewhere," he said. “While I was offered a position, I was more aligned with Innovative and declined. Since then I have gone through personal coaching and a lot of introspection. I applied to where I am going because it aligns with my personal vision a bit better than Innovative largely because of the nature of a consulting business." 

The open process of interviewing and applying was something Bertles appreciates. The company is not for everyone, and it was helpful to have honest discussions about alignment going forward, he said.      “Innovative is not for everyone in every phase of their lives," Bertles says. “The culture is a young and energetic one where you work hard and play hard. Since Justin took over, there has been an emphasis on being a family and on more company engagement. There are pros and cons to this. On the upside, you are more connected to your co-workers and form real relationships with them. However, for those with a busy family life, it can be a strain at times. 

“Overall my experience has been largely positive. I have grown a great deal professionally and personally while at Innovative, and my departure has been a positive and open experience," he added. 

Additional changes 

Along with benefit changes, the firm asked its employees to write their own job descriptions. 

“Writing your own job description was really intimidating," said Jennifer Newman, marketing coordinator. “It will forever be changing, but it made me grow as a person." 

The leaders of the company turned to the employees to understand what new benefits would make sense for them. Employees spoke up.
 
"The organization got loud,” Copie said. “As we got more bold with the employees, the employees started getting more bold with us-which I loved. In most companies, you're working the job description that's been given to you.

“Here we're flipping it around and saying, ‘do the things you want to do, do the things that are most fulfilling for you and when the day comes when it’s no longer fulfilling, pass that torch onto somebody else.’”

The new 2017 benefits include: a $1,000 vacation stipend, cellphone reimbursement, a 3 percent match for retirement savings or to payoff student loans-whichever the employee decides is more necessary-free medical benefits, catered breakfast and lunch, unlimited, untracked paid time off and two unique holidays that are company-specific.

"I'm excited about the new and exciting ways that Innovative is compensating its employees," said Jennifer Corey, a software engineer who has been working at Innovative Solutions since 2015. “It's awesome to work for a company that truly cares and wants to help each of us at our different stages of life and career. For me, Innovative has been like a family. I believe that leadership is open and honest with their employees and clients. I have never worked for a company that I believe in more than I believe in Innovative.” 

Employees also receive free dry cleaning, and legal and financial counseling when needed. 

“We had a hard time finding companies that were doing this here in Rochester, even just in New York in general," said Jaime Eisenhauer, in charge of human capital for the firm. “As our technology industry is evolving, our culture has to evolve with it and really stay ahead." 

Not big costs

Adding the new benefits did not significantly change costs-it helped to make sure all investment was used in a more focused way. 

" In many ways, financially speaking, there wasn’t that much more of a significant investment we had to make between 2016 and 2017 to make this a reality," Copie said. “A lot of this stuff didn’t even cost us money. I would argue that the return on investment is much more significant here because we get discretionary time that you can't get any other way." 

Zina Nelson, vice president of marketing, started working for Innovative Solutions on Jan. 9. “It's a place you love to come to work every day," she said. 

The modern workplace is changing rapidly, and Innovative Solutions will be leading the charge, Copie said. The “millennial workplace" is happening. Companies should not ignore what's coming. 

“I think that with the shift in the generation- the fact that a majority of our workforce is millennial and is going to continue to grow in that respect-I think this is the way," he said. "I really believe in my heart that generationally speaking this is what's preferred. 
Fears of client reaction were quickly overcome once the changes were implemented.

“I'm a millennial so I get that aspect of it.  I’ve been heavily influenced by a lot of leaders who are baby boomers. I respect the fact that nobody should tell us what to do, we carve our own path," he said. "We can fight the man just as much as any other generation. I don't buy into the fact that every millennial walks around with this high level of entitlement. I watch entitlement happen at every age.” 

A challenge was incorporating the feedback of the employees into real changes in a timely manner. For companies looking to commit to a culture of transparency, it requires equal buy-in from leadership, Eisenhauer said. 

Fears of client reaction coupled with the fear of employee apathy to the changes were quickly overcome once the changes were implemented, Copie said. With other concerns taken care of, employees can focus all their attention on clients. 

"There was a perception (from clients) that ‘this place is so great, none of their employees are going to focus on my problems, they're just going to be focused on having fun over at the office,’” Copie said. “So after a couple of conversations, we got the customer to the point of understanding that this is all in an effort to give people the opportunity to focus on one thing and that is client experience." 

The Rochester Childfirst Network has been a client of Innovative Solutions for the past five years. The changes in the organization are felt on the client side. 

“Their company culture, it's noticeable," said Lynn Lubecki, executive director of the Rochester Childfirst Network. “The people who work for Innovative Solutions: we think they're part of our staff. They' re truly excited to help us and work with us to help us be successful.” 

The changes Innovative Solutions is making are ones to be considered by other businesses, Lubecki says. 

“It's an Apple (Inc.)-like culture," she said. “With the people who work for Innovative Solutions, you can tell that there's an entrepreneurial spirit. We feel like we're their partners; they step into our shoes at all times. You can feel the energy when they come in- they're enthusiastic, they're friendly, they smile, (and) they are proactive. 

“You can feel that energy. Their employees are really invested and engaged in the work. It's a model to replicate," she added.

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