Monday, April 20, 2009

No Frills 'Fab

During a recession, one of the worst things a person can be called is a showboat.

If you know the majority is struggling but you still find ways to flash cash, you’ll be vilified. Maybe that’s why you hear so many people complaining about rappers who boast about bling, or why people cringe each time the terms of a new professional sports contract are made public.

In business, we can simplify this concept down to three letters: A-I-G.

But there’s no need to revisit exquisite travels and lush parties. You resent that, and probably don’t want to read any more about it.

Instead, we’ll talk about Tru-Fab Technology Inc. President John Stegh, who appears to be quite the opposite. During the interview for this story, while the two of us stood in the lot between the Eastlake fabricator’s two buildings, we got sidetracked and began talking about current affairs. In the middle of his “GM and Ford need to get their acts together” stream of consciousness, he pointed over to what was, to be honest, a very unsightly vehicle.

It was a bulky, rusty light blue 1987 station wagon. It was also his.


“I don’t want to be stereotypical, but I’ve got the money to buy just about anything,” Stegh said. “I won’t kid ya. But you know what, if I’m out there bragging on the fact that I drive a Denali ... (Tru-Fab) employees are working just as hard as me. They come to work every single day, and they’re not living high on the hog, so why should I?”

This is the guy who just pumped $2 million into his company. Some executives would say or do this kind of thing for show, but I don’t think that was the case with Stegh. He seemed pretty genuine about this. So genuine that it took a good 10-15 mins before we got back on the topic of welding, laser cutting and his new facility. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.

And, excuse me if I already used the phrase “stream of consciousness” in this post. I don’t know any other way to describe THIS:

“I love that car. I drive it everyday. I grew up in station wagons. I’ve got three kids of my own. It’s just what I do, there aren’t a lot of frills with me. I’m not going to say that I want to just capitalize on everybody else’s hard work. I just want to be like everybody else. I want a place of work where everybody can, at least, enjoy coming.

“I’ve been there before. I’ve gone to the job that I hated. I hated that boss who treated me like I was second class, and he was pimpin’ around his Caddy or his Lexus or something ... I’m going to get cut, and all you have to do is thank me as you and your wife drive away and take another vacation? I’m just trying to make overtime, and you take that away from me, now I can’t make my bills. So, really, it’s an investment back to Tru-Fab. From ‘96 to 2009, all the profits I’ve made, I rolled back to Tru-Fab. I crave equipment. I crave being able to supply a person with a job. Because I was there, I was on the flipside of wanting a job from someone who was prominent. Now, I feel like we’re a player ...”

Wow. Yes, I did get him to say the word, ‘pimpin,’ but more importantly, I got him to show his human side, something that people let get away from you on this job. Apparently, he does this naturally, so I can’t take much credit.

Trust me, I tried pressing him about the car, but he didn’t waver. It’s his. He says his wife drives something more reliable — a 1998 minivan. He says his employees don’t think much of it. It fits his persona, the boss who gets his hands dirty with them on a regular basis.

Good for them. That’s one less group of working Americans that won’t have to duck from debris falling from a golden parachute.

--Brandon C. Baker

Photo: Duncan Scott

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New to the Crew

Having interned at The News Herald in 2006, I kind of had an idea of what to expect when joining the crew full-time in March. Yes, there were new faces mixed in with the old, but the steadfast warm, welcoming presence was here to greet me at the door.

However, what I didn’t expect was getting the chance to delve right into some pretty intriguing features and controversial stories right off the bat.

Something as simple sounding as a student dress code generated more comments online than I ever anticipated. In fact, two parents I spoke with who are not in favor of Painesville Schools’ academically dressed program were quite passionate about the matter.

“Personally, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea. I hear from other parents that they don’t mind it, but my daughter had just gotten all these jeans given to her and all these beautiful clothes that she couldn’t use anymore,” said Painesville resident Debbie Huffman, who has a 10-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son in the Painesville School District.

“I know my son is not thrilled,” she said. “On the good side, (the schools) don’t have to worry about anybody wearing anything improper. Now that I have the outfits for her, it’s not quite so bad. We got through it.”

However, mothers like Painesville resident Mary Brewer, who took her daughter out of the school system because of the dress code, fervently believe enforcing those kinds of dress codes in public schools in “un-American” and “fascist.”

Regardless of what side people took on the matter, I was just thrilled to see so many people interacting and having that kind of dialogue.

In my line of work, it still never ceases to amaze me when a seemingly straight forward piece causes unforeseen perspectives to practically crawl out of the woodwork.

Controversy aside, quite a few heart-warming features have landed in my lap as well.

Two weeks ago, I found myself propped on a couch at the Cleveland Institute of Music listening to a 14-year-old pianist from West Geauga do Mozart more justice than I’d ever imagined.

Having played piano myself since I was 4, I was already eager to hear her play, but did not anticipate breaking out in goose bumps or becoming so completely mesmerized, I pretty much forgot I was there to interview her and found myself scrambling for my notebook and pen when it was over.

I enjoy starting each day never quite knowing who I’m going to meet, what their story is or how they manage to leave a mark, no matter how small, in this vast world.

After all, there are stories all around us, often in front of our own eyes. For instance, last week at Petland in Mentor, I watched several shoppers realize their mundane trip to the store was now anything but.

Middlefield resident Samantha Schleger, 18, who has been battling cancer throughout her senior year of high school, received her wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana chapter – an English bulldog.

That evening, people got to witness a girl who has been through so much in the last year, break out in ear to ear grins over a wrinkly faced pooch she named Angus Gunther. The benevolent power of four legged creatures ... but that’s a topic for another day.

Cassandra Shofar

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Schneider Amendment Could Help Laketran

Mark Schneider appears to be first up to bat.

Not at Progressive Field, but for Laketran and its ongoing mission to receive additional state funding for operations. State Rep. Schneider, D-Mentor, has introduced an amendment to the general revenue portion of Gov. Ted Strickland’s 2010-11 budget proposal that would provide an additional $9.2 million to the $13.3 million the governor wants to collectively allot to public transit systems for the next fiscal year.

It’s an important development for the agency and its riders, even if the amendment doesn’t get picked up. That’s because they’ve been reaching out to state legislators to say that the funding Laketran receives — $613,028 this year — pales in comparison to what it got in 2001, more than $1.1 million.

That he would even offer up the amendment should show Laketran officials, and more importantly taxpaying riders, that the grassroots concept may be catching some steam. What’s more, the first-term state rep. is asking Laketran leaders to contact the heads of transit systems in places like Akron, Kent, Youngstown to try to influence them to have their riders send postcards, letters and e-mails to legislators. Why? Because those systems are struggling just like Laketran.

How did Schneider get involved? He says he’s been talking to General Manager Raymond Jurkowski and board member Donna McNamee about the matter for nearly two years. Schneider advised them to come to Columbus last month to provide testimony for the State House’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Justice, and arm of the Finance Committee. They told House members about the quagmire decreasing funding has created when coupled with sagging sales tax receipts hurt by the economy. It opened eyes.

“They were astounded to learn the hits that transit has taken,” McNamee recalled last week at one of the agency’s public hearings on fare increases and service cuts. “They looked like deer in headlights.

“Because a legislator of the House or Senate can only be there for eight years, they did not realize that the cuts in the budget to public transportation were not just another piece of the overall budget cuts and the result of a bad economy.”

McNamee went on to say that Schneider’s action is just one of many steps. Jurkowski added that the same emotional stories told to the agency by customers should be reiterated tenfold to state decision makers.

The odds are probably long if people expect the amendment to make a difference this year. Laketran’s board votes on the financial recovery package May 11, but the final state budget probably won’t be decided until June.

Still, the future can be affected. You know, like July 2010, when Laketran is scheduled to boost fares even more.

Schneider seems to understand the importance of public transportation. Users should be thanking him, but also encouraging his colleagues to do the same. State Rep. Lorraine M. Fende, D-Willowick, and state Sen. Tim Grendell, R-Chester Township, are scheduled to join Schneider in a meeting with Jurkowski. We’ll see what develops from that gathering.

-- Brandon C. Baker

Photo: Jeff Forman

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hearings: Fare Increases, Necessities Threatened and a Bit of Bickering

Any questions asked in this post were answered this week.

People are vexed, fuming and have had it up to here.

One woman even called Laketran’s financial recovery plan the “degradation of society.”

They’re hot because the public transportation system they partially fund through a levy wants to raise fares for the second consecutive year, and slash several services at the same time. Both sides of the battle have merit. Laketran has received a 44 percent decrease in state funding since the onset of this decade.

The agency also fights off the stigma that the $3.6 million it got from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act can be used for operating expenses. Instead, it can be spent only on capital projects, like purchasing buses, vans and other equipment.

However, the riders have valid points, too. The agency wants to cut Saturday service altogether, along with weekday service after 7 p.m. Most of Laketran’s customers seem to understand that declining state and federal aid, along with low sales tax revenue brought on by the recession, have put the system in a tough spot. Still, they believe a resolution could be met that helps Laketran fight the storm, but doesn’t completely alter their own schedules. They fear being unable to get to work on Saturdays, losing the ability to go shopping on the weekend, or even worse, getting to dialysis and other medical appointments.

“I know (Laketran) is in a jammer, there’s no doubt in my mind, but some of these people need help,” Barry Feathers, a blind Willoughby resident who takes Laketran to his concession-stand job at the Lake County Common Pleas Court in Painesville., said at the hearing Tuesday in Mentor.

“I like the job, but if you knew what I was making, you’d think I was crazy or just wasting time,” he said. “I do like the people I meet, and I know I’m not the only one, so I’m hoping something can be done ... I may be selfish, but I want to go to work.”

There were several others who spoke and had this in common with Barry: They have disabilities, so they enjoy using a transit system that’s in touch with their needs. If fares continue rising, they worry that their means of livelihood, health and recreation will be threatened.

Organizations like the Lake County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities and the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board were well-represented and voiced similar concerns.

As pointed out in this story, though, the Mentor hearing briefly turned ugly when commuters and disabled users of Dial-a-Ride began lobbying for Laketran to apply higher increases to services used more by the other group. That turned the event into a “we deserve it more” party. General Manager Raymond Jurkowski and Board President J. Terrell Dillard quickly tapered that talk, declaring that “we’re all in this together.”

It will be interesting to see if this continues tonight in Painesville. Since Laketran’s goals going into the hearings were to help the constituency understand the economic problem and convince them to petition legislators to better fund public transit systems, officials can’t be pleased with that type of bickering.

It’s OK and well within riders’ rights to suggest that Laketran officials might not be doing everything in its power to prevent these cuts. But trying to take service away from other segments of the agency’s ridership won’t accomplish much. Tightening up routes, staff cuts and half-day service on Saturdays, as hearing attendees have suggested, might all be better options that could save some money and not pit riders against one another.

-- Brandon C. Baker

Photo: Jeff Forman

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