A little more than a year ago, Larry Robb made a big change: he left the radio industry, where he had been working since the 1980s, to buy SKM Group, a Depew-based marketing communications firm. He had spent the previous 12 years as vice president and general manager for Entercom Communications, which owns a host of area radio stations.
Robb is SKM’s chief executive officer; the founder, Susan K. Meany, remains involved through new-business development. Robb sees some crossover from the radio industry to his new job, but he also enjoys working through a variety of media at SKM. The firm, which has 45 full-time employees, will have record-high gross profits this year of $5.3 million on almost $16 million in revenue. Robb, a 60-year-old Eden resident, talked about switching careers, developing a good “bench,” and what it means when the office bell rings:
Q: How did you end up leaving the radio business?
A: It kind of happened by accident, because I was networking for my daughter, who worked in marketing and public relations right out of college for like nine years in New York City. And she got married to a Buffalo boy and decided that they might want to move back to Buffalo. And she was wondering whether she could get a job, and I said, ‘Well, I do business with all the agencies, so I’ll just go talk with people, help you network, I’ll just get your resume out.’ … When I was talking to Sue Kerrigan Meany, who owned this agency, she said she might want to sell. And then we talked about it, and two years later, I bought it.
Q: What motivated you to make the change?
A: I was never sure it was going to happen, because buying a business is never a reality until you sign the huge stack of papers. It was such a long process. I was doing really well where I was and I liked my job. But the opportunity to own my own business was really attractive to me. It just kind of happened. I call it luck, but you’ve got to be prepared for opportunity, and the opportunity came up and happened. And luckily, I had a good team of people to advise me, to help me.
Q: What appealed to you about being a business owner?
A: I liked the fact that it was a small business and that I would be in charge and wouldn’t have to answer to anybody. It was a wonderful business Sue had created. … She grew it into what it is. And I really like solving marketing challenges. I like the creative part of it, and so I knew I could be around that all the time. So that was very attractive to me. And just the business model looked good. It was what I was used to: risky, but good profit margins. And it wasn’t that much different from what I was doing before, in that this is really a sales organization; so is a radio station. So it had that similarity. ... I did what I did for a long time, so this has been reinvigorating.
Q: What advice would you give to someone considering a career change like yours?
A: Specific to my change, it’s different running a company – even if it’s bigger – for someone else than it is owning your own company, because you don’t have the pressure of being personally responsible for all those employees.
Q: Did it feel like a risky move leaving an established career to buy a business?
A: Yeah, but I like that. I like running scared a little bit. I don’t like to be bored, I don’t like redundancy. I like to be a little nervous. If I’m not scared, if things are going really, really well, I get really nervous and I say, ‘Uh-oh, something bad’s going to happen. This doesn’t feel right.’ I’m constantly running. … If you’re thinking of buying your own business so that you can put your feet up and it’s going to be a slam dunk and easier and everybody’s just going to do their job for you, I don’t think that’s a good reason to buy a business. You have to want to be part of the growth and the solutions.
Q: What were your impressions of SKM coming in?
A: Solid, but kind of under the radar. And everybody knows it locally because of the association with Tops [Markets], because Tops is the biggest local account. But really, 70 percent of our revenues come from out of state.
Q: How do you try to recruit good employees?
A: You have to constantly be recruiting and building what I call your bench. So in other words, if you are all set and you think your department is staffed properly, something’s going to happen, somebody’s going to leave for whatever reason, or there’s going to be a change. And if you don’t already know who you want to fill that position, then you’re going to lose time, and you may hire for not the right reasons. You might hire because there’s a vacancy, instead of, ‘Hey, this is the best person.’ So I’m big on being prepared and getting the best people for the position.
Q: What about retaining employees?
A: I always feel like if somebody wants to leave, there’s a reason, and you should let them go. You work on that on the front end [with hiring decisions]. ... We try to have fun and celebrate the wins. We have a bell that we ring when we have good news, everybody runs into the kitchen and whoever has the good news reports on it. It could be a new client, it could be somebody’s pregnant. … We have the missionary award where the peers recognize one of their own for above and beyond. We expect everybody to be good at their jobs and do a good job, but a lot of times, because of the nature of the business, we’re working late, or we get curve balls, or there’s a crisis, and the people that step in and help in those situations, we want to recognize them. The nominations are on paper and they’re posted, they’re there for everybody to see, who nominated who for what. ... Even the people that don’t win are, in essence, they’re recognized.
Q: SKM’s roots are in direct mail. Is direct mail still effective?
A: The financial services and the banks, insurance – direct mail is still a really, really effective way for them to get results. And it’s measurable – in other words, if you send out a thousand pieces and you get 10 back, you can measure that percent. Even though our roots are in direct mail, we’re a full-service communications company now. But what we’ve kept from the direct mail side, besides some great clients, is that measurability, tracking results. Even with digital, we’re very careful to set it up so that we can always measure. And not just to find out what isn’t working, but to find out what really is working, because if you can accelerate that, if you can move on that more quickly, you’ll get results faster.