Steve Zwagil, B.S. ’80, is president of Brothers Services Company and oversees all operations and financial management at the Hampstead, Md-based company. He also is a member of the Merrick School of Business Accounting Advisory Board. Zwagil recently shared with The Merrick Exchange some thoughts about his time at UB, his career and how businesses can help the less fortunate—even in the spotlight of national television.
Merrick Exchange: How did Brothers Service Company get involved in ABC’s ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ in Baltimore and what was the experience like?
Steve Zwagil: We received a call from Chris Rachuba, of the Rachuba Group, a builder based in Eldersburg, Md. He asked if we would be interested in helping out on the Boys Hope/Girls Hope project for ABC’s ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’(The episode originally aired on Sept. 26). We didn't hesitate. John Martindale (CEO of Brothers Services and member of the Merrick School of Business Dean’s Advisory Council) and I were both big fans of the show. We jumped at the opportunity to help underprivileged youth transcend their circumstances and give them a safer environment. It fit perfectly with the kinds of ways we like to give back to the community.
Fortunately, we were having a very good year, and could afford to donate the manpower and materials necessary to accomplish the job. Because of circumstances outside our control, such as construction delays and heavy rains, it ended up costing us a lot more than we had planned. The dedication of our people, some of whom worked incredibly long hours, was inspiring. In the end, knowing that we had helped change the lives of several young women and their families by literally providing the roof over their head was an indescribable feeling.
ME: Why is volunteerism important to Brothers Services Company?
SZ: Helping those less fortunate is just part of our DNA at Brothers. That comes from the top; it is the responsibility of a company's leadership to build that kind of culture. Over the last 25 years, that is precisely what John Martindale has built at Brothers, and is the kind of culture that I've continued to help build over the last six years. Also, it is important to note that the vast majority of the folks that work for Brothers are people of faith. As such, volunteerism, helping those less fortunate, giving back to the communities we serve, is simply what we do—both as individuals and collectively as a company.
ME: How do you balance corporate social responsibility with the requirements of the bottom line?
SZ: The word "balance" suggests that there is a trade-off, even a tension, between being profitable and being socially responsible. My partner and I believe that the two not only can coexist but that they are necessarily dependent on one another. In other words, we fundamentally believe that we have an obligation to our stakeholders—our customers, employees, vendors, owners and the communities we serve, to be socially responsible, a powerful force for good. We sincerely believe that being socially responsible will, in turn, help drive our profitability.
ME: Please describe your current position as president at Brothers Service Company.
SZ: I am responsible for managing the daily operations of the company—the good, the bad and the ugly. Fortunately, it's mostly good, sometimes bad, and rarely ugly. It's both very rewarding and very humbling to have responsibility for overseeing an organization as large as Brothers. A good part of my time is also spent working with John on strategic issues.
ME: Where did you get your start?
SZ: In public accounting, at a regional accounting firm named Naron & Wagner. I spent 17 years in public accounting, the last eight of which were as a partner in the firm Levin, Zwagil & Block. In 1996, I left public accounting to pursue a career in private industry, and have worked for firms in such diverse industries as mortgage banking, technology, staffing, and now construction.
ME: Why did you choose to attend UB?
SZ: Back in the late 1970s, I wanted to pursue a degree in business with a concentration in accounting. My folks were not financially able to send me away to school. Thus, I had to pay my way through college by working while I went to school. UB was the solution. The University provided a robust curriculum, incredible professors, it was conveniently located downtown and the tuition was very affordable. For me, UB truly lived up to its reputation as a great learning institution. Looking back, I’m not sure any other school could have provided all of the attributes that I experienced going to UB.
ME: How has attending UB helped you in your career?
SZ: First and foremost, the quality of education that I received, which is directly related to the quality of the professors who taught me. Simply put, I got a great education at UB. I have been in numerous business situations over the years where I’ve either collaborated with, or been on opposite sides of, people who’ve attended some of the best schools in the country. I’ve often said that I would put the education I received at UB, coupled with the lifetime learning perspective that was drilled into me while at UB, up against many of those prestigious institutions. And I truly believe that.
A large part of the success that I have achieved is attributable to a diversity of experiences I have had, starting with my career in public accounting, which exposed me to various industries, and my subsequent career in private industry. In my mind, my ability to leverage each of my prior successes into future successes all leads back to the solid foundation I built at UB.
ME: What advice would you give to students who might want to pursue a career in your field but are undecided?
SZ: I'm going to answer this question in the context of accounting, since that is where I spent most of my career. My best advice would be: stick it out. Accounting is the language of business. It gives you such an incredible broad understanding of business and can open up so many opportunities for you in the business world. It's a shame that so many students drop out of accounting. It can be so rewarding if you can make it to the finish line.
ME: What's the one job-hunting secret you wish all students knew?
SZ: A job interview is inherently a sale, and in order to be successful in any sale, you must know your product, know your customer and convince your customer that buying your product will make his/her life better. The best people I have hired have convinced me of this, and done it with great zeal and enthusiasm. Be well informed, be engaging, be comfortable in your own skin, and smile!
ME: What personal goal have you set for yourself this year?
SZ: Listen more, talk less. Be more patient.
ME: What does your future look like?
SZ: I think the next season of life could well be my best. I have great friends, a loving family, and an exciting business to run. I expect to see great things happen.
Photo from the Boys Hope/Girls Hope project.