Taking Care of Business in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, more than 800 businesses are owned or operated by URI alumni. These include large and well-known brands like CVS/Caremark Corp., Hasbro, Inc., and Ocean State Job Lot, as well as major health care facilities like Kent County Hospital and Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island. Together, these five Ocean State institutions employ more than 425 URI graduates.

But it’s the smaller companies with innovative and forward-thinking leaders that can often move quickly to take advantage of emerging opportunities, even in difficult times. In a state like Rhode Island where small businesses are the primary drivers of the economy, the executives of these businesses may be the foundation for an economic recovery.

Michael Andreozzi ’88 is one such executive. The president of Beltone New England, the largest distributor of Beltone hearing aids in the country, opened 23 new retail hearing aid clinics in October 2008, bringing the total number of such clinics to 108 in nine northeastern states. In addition, he just struck a deal with CVS to open hearing clinics in as many as 100 CVS pharmacies.

One key to Andreozzi’s success, and the success of his company, he said, is creating an upbeat culture and communicating to his staff that “despite what they see and read in the news, the sky isn’t falling for us.”

“The hearing aid business can sound boring, but I’m the most passionate guy when I talk about how hearing aids can improve your life—I wear one, too—and we’re making the business exciting by leveraging new technologies and being on the cutting edge of staff training.”

Andreozzi, whose degree is in communicative disorders, is also passionate about his URI experience. He became president of his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, soon after he pledged and credits the leadership skills he developed there for much of his business success.

“I felt like the fraternity was sort of like a business, and I had to deal with all the moving parts of a team of people —some of whom were stars and some whom were troublemakers—and I learned how to multitask. Those were the best days of my life.”

Like Andreozzi, restaurateur Deborah Norman ’73 also places a high value on the importance of staff training. The owner of Rue De L’Espoir, who opened her bistro 33 years ago and turned it into a Providence institution, feels lucky to owe nothing on her building and have a core of regular customers and a menu that appeals to every price point. As the only white tablecloth restaurant in Rhode Island that offers breakfast, she has carved out a nice niche to help sustain her business through difficult times.

But she is also a hands-on owner who is on the job seven days a week. “I like to tell my staff that the restaurant business is like theater,” said Norman, who earned degrees in psychology and music. “We put on a show for our customers every single night, and every element of our performance has to be consistent and at a high level day in and day out. It’s an analogy that they understand and believe in.”

When the economy goes sour, Jim Pontarelli, M.B.A. ’94, says that’s when successful companies work to retain their base and manage for margin. As president of RDW Group, one of the largest advertising, public relations, and Web design companies in the Northeast, he has taken his own advice and grown his company’s bottom line significantly.

“We are very disciplined about controlling expenses,” he said. “You have to control costs in good times as well as bad. If you wait for a downturn to get serious about managing your business, it’s too late.”

RDW’s clients include Blue Cross Blue Shield, Oxford University Press, GTECH, Harvard University, NBC, and The World Bank. “Our work in several sectors has increased as a result of the tough economy and our development of emerging capabilities, particularly in online media. We have a number of new clients in the higher education, health care, business-to-business, and non-profit categories as organizations are being forced to be more creative, competitive, and cost-efficient.”

Leonard Gemma ’82, president of Gem Plumbing and Heating Co., one of the fastest growing companies in Rhode Island, said that the economic downturn has been just “a little hiccup” for his business, one that he has been able to weather with “ a little belt tightening.”

Gemma is a firm believer in the use of advanced technologies to improve his business; the company has won numerous awards for innovation and technology, and Gemma gets daily reports on his Blackberry about sales, call volume, and cash flow. “But reputation means everything to us,” he said. “It all comes down to relationships with our customers. Give them good service, and even in a bad economy they’ll remember you.”

Founded by Gemma’s father in 1949, when he operated the company out of the family garage, Gem Plumbing now has more than 300 employees and 165 trucks, making it one of the largest plumbing and heating companies in the country.

Gemma credits some of his company’s success to relationships he and his brothers, Larry and Edward, both Class of 1982, developed at URI, and to the fact that each studied different business disciplines at the University. “The education we received at URI was phenomenal, and it has helped us a great deal in the business world.”

These executives, and many more, are another demonstration of the economic impact that the University has on the state of Rhode Island through its alumni and the employment they provide to area residents.

By Todd McLeish