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 twaring@bsmphilly.com