Pam Lamaster-Millett enjoyed one of her first jobs so much, she eventually bought the business. Today Searl Lamaster Howe Architects is an award-winning creative firm whose aesthetic, sleek, and eco-friendly work graces the pages of Dwell, Architectural Digest, and Modern Luxury.
Pam was passionate about the focus, ethos and customers of the Certified Female Business Enterprise firm from day one back in 1998, but she said it was interesting to buy a company from someone else, even after 18 years. “The 2008 recession was an eye-opener. We took a much closer look at the infrastructure supporting the company and uncovered many ways to re-think and streamline our operations. Technology use was fundamental to enabling that change.”
In fact, that kind of continual re-imagining —also key to thoughtful architecture— has kept the business nimble in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The firm built its reputation from a passion to impact individual’s lives at an intimate level. In turn, the new owners, Pam and her partner Greg Howe, were equally passionate about the impact they could make on their staff members’ lives. As a small business, they needed to make every dollar stretch. In 2015, when they became disillusioned by the annual commission fees of their insurance broker — in addition to the actual costs for healthcare benefits— they agreed to find a better solution.
“My partner always suspected that the diamond ankle bracelet our former insurance broker wore cost more than his car — and was paid for solely by the giant commission she received from pitching us the same plan with ever-increasing costs,” added Pam.
After online research and comparisons, Pam selected Zenefits.
I love the transparent, team-focused approach the Zenefits platform provides. There are no smoke and mirrors insurance plans or cumbersome excel forms to calculate vacation time! I really trust Zenefits to give us fair renewals.
Searl Lamaster Howe Architects
Making investments count
“When we started using Zenefits about five years ago, the impetus was to negotiate better cost for healthcare insurance, but the added benefits Zenefits provides saves our company weeks of time and hassle,” says Pam.
- Health Insurance. “Starting with health insurance, our previous rep would take several hours of our manager’s time collecting staff information and then explaining the plan options in a ‘dumbed down’ spreadsheet she had put together, which seemed to hide more information than it offered. This would send us through several rounds of questions and answers, ultimately resulting in her strongly advising us to keep the plan we had, regardless of cost increases. Zenefits is far more transparent with the plan information and accommodating with alternative options. They provide all the information upfront so we can make an informed decision from the start. And our One Digital broker helps us test other options vs. giving us pushback. Each member of the team likely saves a day’s time for each enrollment period.”
- Time Off Tracking. “Additionally, we love Zenefits’ PTO tracking. The ability for employees to request time in advance helps greatly with their personal planning, as well as my workflow plans. The online format which allows us to make notes and adjustments helps us stay transparent and avoid liability. If our office manager had to calculate individuals’ PTO time, it would take a day of her time, every month. We are a small office, but almost everyone has a different negotiated PTO package.”
- Onboarding. “We have a careful hiring process due to the artistic component, judgment, and fit in our business. So once we’ve made the decision to hire, Zenefits makes the entire onboarding process efficient for our employees and our owners. And it is such a convenient one-stop-shop when we approach review time because everything is in one place.”
- Reporting. “With Zenefits reporting, we can easily compare how salaries have changed over the years. It helps with all our end-of-year filing for retirement plans and in the event of staff transitions.”
Blueprint for Resilience
Pam and Greg continue to listen and learn as their own office design needs to adapt.
For example, architecture firms have been working in open office space, long before tech firms began adopting that standard. “It makes for a tight-knit group and facilitates learning and knowledge exchange. But it is also loud, distracting and certainly not germ-limiting in the COVID-19 era,” adds Pam.
“We attract people who want to wear many hats. Our team members are active learners and interested people. Shifting to a remote workforce, we’ve learned more about them. Some folks who were challenged in the collaborative but noisy office to stay on task, have thrived remotely, and become really productive. So now we are considering staggered schedules for our next ‘new normal.’ ”
Obstacles really do reveal new paths forward. And Pam says that having software tools in place to support change has been crucial to the firm’s ability to adapt to the changes in the larger business environment.
“Our goals for this year are changing, so we will change with them. Last week I presented our business plan at a Goldman Sachs 10K small biz class. That plan will likely stretch out longer than originally scoped. But, considering the market, I feel very lucky we’re still working and haven’t had to cut staff, so in that respect, we’re already winning!”