Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Schools approve $681 m. budget request

From the school board's e-letter to parents:

The Board of Education approved its fiscal year 2012 Operating Budget Request this morning. The request, in the amount of $681,171,710, will now be forwarded to the County Executive. 

In approving its request, the Board cut $1.6 million from the Superintendent's Proposed Budget. The reduction was made in response to the Governor's Budget Proposal, which provides $1.6 million less in state funding than school officials estimated when preparing the Superintendent's proposal.

The request represents a $5.8 million, or a less than one percent, increase over the current year's budget.

The Board's request
- Maintains current class sizes and all current instructional program offerings.
- Adds 46.2 positions for enrollment growth, 4.5 positions to continue ongoing programs, and 1.5 positions for program enhancement; decreases 9.0 positions to support mandatory increases.
- Adds an Allied Sports Program for students with disabilities.
- Provides planning money for an elementary World Language Program.
- Covers increases of $840,000 in fixed charges such as health insurance for new employees, retirement costs, and workers' compensation.
- Adds $250,000 to upgrade the school system's Integrated Financial System.

The request does not include costs that may result from negotiations with employee bargaining units, which are currently underway.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The mall is no home for the homeless

This ran in WaPo recently:

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 10:21 PM 

For years, the Mall in Columbia shopping center has been a popular early morning haunt. There are power walkers, caffeine-craving commuters and, often, some of Howard County's homeless, who buy coffee if they can afford it or sometimes just stake out a spot to pass a few hours.

Now, though, the premier mall in one of the nation's richest counties has started taking a harder line against the homeless.

In recent weeks, at least two homeless people have been banned from entering the mall, and about 20 more have been told that they should stay out during the early morning, according to some homeless people and their advocates.

"I understand that the mall is private property, but it's open to the public, and when you're trying to utilize the services of some of the vendors and you're thrown out, that's almost a violation of your civil rights," said a 62-year-old woman, who said she was banned this month for what security guards said was disturbing the peace.
The mall's ownership, General Growth Properties, declined to make anyone available for questions Thursday. A spokesman issued a statement on behalf of the mall's general manager, Katie Essing.

"If anyone does not adhere to our rules and regulations," the statement read in part, "they are first issued a warning; and secondly, if their behavior does not improve, they are banned from the center."

Residents of the county's emergency winter shelter are typically dropped off each morning and picked up each evening at the mall's bus stop, which is the transit hub in Columbia. While some venture elsewhere in the county for the day, others opt to enter the mall, which counts among its tenants Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, the Apple Store and AMC movie theaters.

Many stores do not open until 10 a.m. on weekdays, but Starbucks opens at 6:30, and McDonald's and Panera Bread open at 8.

About a month ago, the mall's management contacted Grassroots Crisis Intervention, said Douglas Carl, the nonprofit group's manager of emergency and outreach homeless services. Grassroots was told that residents of the emergency shelter should not enter the shopping center before 10 a.m., Carl said.

The mall management, he said, expressed concerns about incidents involving people believed to be residents of the emergency shelter.

"I'm certainly not going to say that there are never any problems with people that stay in our shelter," Carl said, "but I have no way of knowing whether the individuals that they were referring to were in our shelters."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sales lessons from a place called Cozumel

This ran in Capital Business, The Washington Post's local business weekly, on Monday.

By Dan Beyers
Monday, February 21, 2011; 15 

Zig Ziglar, the motivational sales guru, likes to remind people that it's easy to miss 100 percent of the sales you never ask for.

I thought about that aphorism last week after dropping in on the offices of DLT Solutions in Herndon.
DLT is a value-added reseller, meaning the company sells other people's stuff. In this case, DLT sells products from Google, Oracle, Symantec and technology companies to big enterprises.

It's a lucrative business. The privately held company has annual revenue north of $600 million, and it is growing, even through the downturn. Which surprised me, given that the company doesn't really make anything.

It's just a middleman.

"We prefer 'intermediary,' " corrected Rick Marcotte, the chairman, president and chief executive
DLT's specialty is the Byzantine world of government procurement, having spent the past 20 years building a sales organization dedicated to identifying contract opportunities and matching up vendors.

"That's our secret sauce," Marcotte said.

Marcotte primes his machine, now 235 people strong, with incentives. Everyone, whether in sales or not, gets a free trip to somewhere warm if his or her team meets its targets. The company has even named its conference rooms after former warm-weather destinations, to keep those enticements front of mind.

We met in Cozumel.

Marcotte said there are lots of ways to build a sales team. You can invest in a few big rainmakers and hope to land a few big deals. Or you can hustle.

DLT hustles.

In 2010, Marcotte said the company counted 3.5 million times it "touched" a potential customer. Those contacts yielded 92,000 potential leads. Those leads allowed the company to make $2.3 billion worth of quotes for new business, which turned into 29,000 new orders, representing $89 million in incremental new revenue for DLT's vendor partners.

Business the vendors themselves might not have gotten, because they didn't ask.

And then it hit me.

DLT does make something after all.

It manufactures sales.

Howard Who-se?

We're catching up a bit here, and one of the things we've been very curious about is what the Rouse Co., er, General Gro, er, Howard Hughes Corp. plan to do with its Columbia holdings.

So far the newly spun off company is as reclusive as its billionaire namesake in his later life. But the company did post this Reuters story on its web site, which offers some insight as to who is running the show and what their interests might be.

The Howard Hughes Corp may bear the name of a legendary U.S. industrialist of yesteryear, but it is the names of  the people now leading the company -- primarily hedge fund manager William Ackman -- that are pushing the shares higher, said JMP Securities analyst Jim Wilson. 

"I don't think it's any more than that," he said.

Ackman, who heads Pershing Square Capital Management, is the chairman of Howard Hughes Corp, which owns a  collection of land, undeveloped malls, a master-planned community business, mixed-use projects, and even General Growth's headquarters.

Although some of its properties produce income, the bulk of the assets are land and development projects, which are risky and difficult to value. 

"It would appear to me that you have a whole series of smart investors in here, and other investors are just following  where the smart investors go," Wilson said.

Pershing's pre-bankruptcy investment in General Growth of less than $200 million is now worth more than $1 billion. Through its holdings of shares, warrants and stock, Ackman's hedge fund controls about 28 percent of Howard  Hughes.

Like Ackman, Howard Hughes' other top officers have stakes in the company -- 7-year warrants paid out of their own  pockets. CEO David Weinreb put down $15 million and President Grant Herlitz, $2 million.

....T2 Partners, part of Tilson Funds, was among those receiving Howard Hughes shares when General Growth  emerged from bankruptcy, Tilson managing partner Glenn Tongue said, declining to say whether the firm still owned  the Howard Hughes shares because it hasn't filed its disclosure statement.

Tongue said the stock's value is still unknown because management has yet to present to investors its long range  plans.

"There's lots and lots of assets, and lots of things to do with the assets. But you still need someone to articulate what that vision is before a firm like ours is going to try to estimate intrinsic value," Tongue said. 

The company's leaders are working on that, said Weinreb, who grew up with Ackman in Chappaqua, New York. The two rekindled their friendship about 13 years ago.

"We have set our sights on getting our hands around the many opportunities that exist within our dynamic portfolio and evaluating and prioritizing those opportunities," he said. 

In terms of compensation, the company appears to want its new leadership to stick around a while. Here's a press release from late last year when Weinreb was named chief executive:

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Suits make this man

This column originally appeared in Capital Business, the Washington Post's new local business weekly.

By Dan Beyers
Monday, January 31, 2011; 21

I bought a new suit the other day.

Actually, I bought several.

There's something about a new suit that makes a man, at least this one. That fine wool and those pinstripes make me stand up straighter, and mumble less.

It's been a while since I spent any serious time in a men's store. I blame the 1990s tech boom and the rise of business casual. To me, business casual is just an excuse for not spending a lot of money on clothes. All you need is a pressed shirt and an ironed pair of khakis, and sometimes not even that.

My fall off the clothes wagon coincided with the demise of Britches of Georgetowne. When Britches went out in 2003 so did my guy. My guy was a sharp-dressed salesman who used to call me periodically, always at just the right time, and suggest I come in to look at a "sweeeet" new suit or tie or shirt or pair of pants. He was chatty but not pushy and he was always honest in his appraisal of how I looked when I tried something on.

I never regretted a purchase.

We stayed in touch after he moved on, but it was never quite the same. His new gig was at a store far off my beaten path, in a mall, and I don't shop in malls.

Don't get me wrong, I've met perfectly agreeable salespeople in malls, but somehow I have never developed a satisfying relationship. I often get the feeling that the person helping me is looking over my shoulder for the next customer. I feel rushed.

Before Britches, I had my guy at Raleighs, another D.C. chain that faded into the sunset. My guy from Raleighs picked out my first tie. I used to buy one new tie a month, which always made the selection difficult. What color? Striped or paisley? I would study my options for what seemed like an eternity.

My guy was endlessly patient.

Sales help like that is almost as hard to find these days as a tie on a collar in the suburbs. I realized as I was getting fitted for my suits the other day that I can count on one hand the new neckwear I've bought over the past couple years.

I miss my sartorial expeditions. While I don't plan to go all Mad-Men-pocket-square on the world, I silently resolved to return soon to check out the merchandise.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Network, network, network

This column originally appeared in Capital Business, the Washington Post's new local business weekly.

By Dan Beyers
Monday, February 7, 2011; 21 

When building a business, it's good to get around.

If there's one thing I've learned in the nine months or so since we launched Capital Business, it is the value of networking.

There's something invigorating about mixing with other people who are trying to make a dollar. It's cathartic. I often come away with a sense we are all in this together.

Last week, I was invited to watch a Georgetown basketball game with a group of local business leaders over at the Verizon Center. Now, I happen to be a big fan of the college game, much more so than the pro version, and the contest was a promising one, against Big East rival Louisville. But I honestly didn't watch more than two minutes because I was having such a busy time gabbing in the back of our suite.

These were all successful business people, folks who didn't mind talking about a past failure or two and the lessons they learned. Many of them have been through the ups and downs of a business cycle once or twice before, and I was eager to get their take on the current economic climate.

In the main, I got the feeling people are more optimistic than they were just a few months ago. Business has stabilized.

They are exhaling a bit.

But only a bit.

More than one person told me they thought 2011 would turn out okay, but they were less sure about 2012, when the federal stimulus program would in all likelihood have run its course and potential cuts in government spending might begin to bite.

Perhaps the larger economy would pick up speed and make up for any pullback here in the nation's capital. But no one I spoke with is ready to count on that, quite yet.

Meanwhile, down on the court, a buzzer sounded as the players returned from a timeout.

The Hoyas held on to a thin lead in the game's waning moments, but could not celebrate until a final three-point try by Louisville clanged off the rim.

The margin between success and failure is often very small.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What we've been up to, starting with Wal-Mart

At least one member of the Talk team has been a little preoccupied with the Washington Post's new local business weekly Capital Business. We plan to post Dan's weekly editor's note for giggles. We'll publish a few over the next few days to show what we've been up to. Here's the most recent one:

By Dan Beyers
Monday, February 14, 2011; 21

A group of Wal-Mart representatives stopped by The Washington Post last week to answer questions about the retailer's plans to open four stores in the District of Columbia.

They talked about bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the city's "grocery deserts," and about boosting neighborhood job rolls. They reminded us how D.C. residents already spend $41 million a year at Wal-Marts outside the nation's capital, so why not keep some of that money closer to home?

Why not indeed.

I have marveled for some time now at the retail phenomenon that is the Target store in Columbia Heights. My regular commute takes me by the neighborhood, and invariably someone will be walking along, lugging two or three bags of everyday whatnot. More than once, a bike has rolled by, its rider awkwardly schlepping a floor lamp or some other impossibly bulky household item.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of the urban shopper, I think.

Except for a long time, that's precisely what a great number of retailers did.

Sentiment seems to be shifting, though. More people these days are moving into the city than out, and restaurateurs and shopkeepers are taking notice.

Wal-Mart's plans are clearly among the bolder attempted here, not just in the number of stores being proposed but in the forms they will take. The new downtown stores will be smaller than the sprawling supercenters folks are accustomed to in the hinterlands. One will be tucked into a multi-story mixed-use complex; another on top of a yet-to-be named big box.

Wal-Mart would like to begin construction on its initial store this fall. But first, it will have to overcome objections about its wage scale and address neighborhood development concerns.

The risks are not only political. There's also the question of whether it is reading the market right. If they build it, will the shoppers come? And if they do come, how long will Wal-Mart have the neighborhood to itself?
Rivals are almost certain to respond. One Wal-Mart executive noted that two grocery stores near his company's proposed sites have already announced plans to upgrade their establishments.


It should be a fascinating business story to watch.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ta-ta tot lot

Who needs fresh air? We guess families are too busy with their "screens" these days. Saw this on an e-mail to the folks in River Hill:

The Columbia Association (CA) has notified us that they will remove the Mellow Wine Way Tot Lot (RH9) during the week of February 21, 2011. The work is expected to take two or three days, weather permitting. CA staff will be removing the equipment and seeding the area to prevent erosion. The area will not be mowed and will gradually revert to its original wooded state.
The elimination of this tot lot is part of CA’s efforts to control costs. CA has plans to reduce the number of totlots Columbia – wide from 171 to 136 over a period of 10 years. In 2010, the River Hill Community Association undertook efforts to notify and seek input from residents regarding the elimination of tot lots in our community. As a result of this process, the Mellow Wine Way Tot Lot was identified as the first tot lot in the village to be removed.