Gary G. Drook joined the AFFINA Board of Directors January 1996 and became the president and chief executive officer November 1, 1996. He is responsible for day-to-day operations and enhancing the long-term growth and profitability performance of the corporation. 

Drook’s professional career spanned 26 years with Ameritech, one of the seven Regional Bell Operating Companies.

He joined Indiana Bell in 1969 and held numerous positions with Indiana Bell and Ameritech over the next two decades, including: vice president of strategy at Ameritech Corporation; president and chief executive officer of Ameritech Publishing; senior vice president of business development for Ameritech Corporation and president of Ameritech’s Enhanced Business Services.

Prior to his retirement in October 1995, he was responsible for all aspects of Network Services, Ameritech’s largest business unit. This unit with 38,000 employees is responsible for all construction, engineering, installation, repair, central office switching and operator services.

Drook served for two years as an officer in the U.S. Army, has a bachelor’s degree in business from Indiana University, and studied in Dartmouth College’s executive development program. Always active in community affairs, Drook serves as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council of Indiana University and the Board of Trustees for the Children’s Hospital of Illinois.

He is the chairman of the Audit Commission for VimpelCommunications, chairman of the Governance Committee, and a member of the board of directors for Northwestern Corporation. He is a past chairman of the Yellow Pages Publishers Association, has been a member of the National Board of Directors for the Council of Better Business Bureaus as well as The Goodman Theatre, and has been active in a number of church and education committees.

He and his wife, Linda, have three grown sons: Grant, Ryan, and Jason.

Tell us about your background, schools attended, work history, family, etc.

I grew up on a farm in north central Indiana and attended Indiana University, where I met my wife. 

After graduating from college in 1967, I spent two years on active duty with the U.S. Army, including a tour of duty with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. I returned to Indiana and joined Indiana Bell in their management training program. Early assignments included supervisory positions of increasing responsibility in operations.

Our family lived in several communities in north central Indiana including Attica, Crawfordsville, Kokomo, and Muncie before I moved to Indianapolis in 1978 to become the assistant vice president of Data Processing. After the break up of the Bell System, Ameritech was created to serve customers in the Midwest and I assumed responsibility for the marketing function at Indiana Bell.

In 1987 we moved to Chicago after I accepted the opportunity to lead the corporate strategy area for Ameritech. In 1989 I became the president of Ameritech Yellow Pages, headquartered in Troy, Mich. As a result, we moved to Grosse Pointe, Mich., where we lived for the next five years.

In 1994 we returned to Chicago, where I ended up leading network services, Ameritech’s largest business unit with more than 38,000 employees. This unit was responsible for all aspects of delivering service to our customers, including repair, installation, technology, construction, operators, engineers, etc. I elected to accept early retirement in the Fall of 1995 and ended a 27-year career.

How/when was AFFINA started? Briefly describe its history, and the products or services you offer.

The history of Affina really begins in 1963 when Charles S. Ruppman moved to Peoria from Chicago and purchased a very small local advertising agency. His plan was to build a national Yellow Pages sales agency within the advertising business. With the help of his son, Charles, the business flourished and eventually became one of the largest Yellow Pages sales agencies in the nation.

Along the way they created several successful corporations, including a company that later became CDC Corporation, Today’s Merchandising, and the predecessor to AFFINA, Ruppman Marketing Technologies.

Today we have sold off all businesses except the inbound telemarketing business, which we have focused on solely for the past five years. Initially this business provided a service called dealer locator. The concept was simple but solved a big problem for manufacturers.

By having potential customers call an 800 number and providing their zip code, a live person could tell them where the nearest dealer handling the product they wanted to purchase was located. This concept took advantage of three developments of the time: ZIP codes were new, 800 numbers ( then called WATTS lines) were expensive and used in limited applications, and computers.

By combining these three tools, Ruppman created the first viable customer hotlines using 800 numbers and coined the phrase "for the dealer nearest you call 1-800-(some company’s name).

We’ve come a long way from those early days and today offer an array of fully integrated customer relationship management services.

Technology remains at the heart of our services, and we are continuously developing customized solutions for our clients. Our client list reads like the Dow Jones 100. These are large corporations with demanding marketing needs and a quality focus.

How many employees did you have (full/part time) at the beginning? Today? How many sites do you have in the U.S., and what operations are performed at each site?

Our current business started in 1973 with seven employees. Today we have almost 2,000 people spread across the U.S. and Canada. 

Our headquarters, two call centers and the fulfillment operations are in Peoria where the company first started, but we also have operations in Waterloo, Iowa; Troy, Mich.; St. Louis, Mo.; Montreal, Canada; and last year we added two new facilities in Suffolk, Va.; and El Paso, Texas. 

You serve on the audit commission for VimpelCom, a Russian-based company. How did you get involved, and what role do you play?

After leaving Ameritech I was approached by the chairman of Vimpel Communications, Augie Fabela, and asked to serve on their board of directors. At the time the company was still privately held, very young, and wanted the experience I acquired during my previous 27 years with Ameritech.

Having never been to a former communist country, this sounded interesting, and I agreed to join the board.

Today I’m the chairman of the audit commission (similar to the audit committee of an American company) and travel to Moscow two or three times a year.

This has been a wonderful experience as I’ve watched not only this company become the first Russian company to be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, but also to watch the Russian economy migrate from being state controlled to a free market approach.

Today I have a lot of friends in the country. My wife has now been to Russia two or three times and plans to travel there with me again this year.

You spent a great portion of your career working for Indiana Bell and Ameritech. What prompted the career change?

I turned 50 about the time I retired, and I guess you could say I needed a change. In reality, I wasn’t comfortable with where the company was headed, so when I was given the opportunity to leave a little early, I jumped at the chance.

How has AFFINA expanded, and to what do you attribute the growth of the business from its origins?

During the past five years we’ve grown revenues from $39 million to more than $100 million. We’ve achieved this growth for several reasons. First of all, we’ve built a world class management team that brings a lot of experience working with large organizations.

We’ve focused on delivering measurable results with a focus on quality. We’ve always been recognized as the industry leader for delivering superior customer service and we’ve been able to maintain this reputation as we’ve grown the business.

During the past three years we’ve begun developing programs for governmental agencies trying to adopt the best practices of private industry. 

In many cases these are brand new programs, and in some cases we’ve taken existing programs and made them much better. Today, governmental agencies are our largest clients.

What sets AFFINA apart from others in your industry? What trends in your industry have forced change in your business? How did it change? Was it for the better or for the worse?

Over the past 10 years several companies have sprung up in this industry. Many went public quickly after being founded and didn’t have the leadership or experience to deliver on their early promises.

As a result, in some cases, clients who didn’t do their homework before selecting a partner were disappointed in the services they received. This has placed a larger burden on us to make sure we deliver what we promise, exceed our clients’ expectations, and develop innovative solutions.

In the long run, choice is great for our clients and competition keeps us pushing for new innovations, so we’re always one step ahead.

What, if any, misperceptions does the community hold regarding AFFINA?

I’m always amazed at the number of people I meet in the community that began their career with AFFINA, or had a relative that worked here.

In many cases they know one or more of our current employees. As a result, I think the community knows us pretty well. They’re familiar not only with what we do, but who we do it for.

For those that don’t know us as well, I suspect they might think we’re the folks who call you during the dinner hour and try to sell you a credit card. That’s not who we are. We’re the folks you call when you need help or have a question.

How have you marketed your products or services in the past? What, if any, changes have you seen in those efforts recently during the current economic downturn?

We’ve always used a direct sales force since what we sell is tailored to the clients’ needs.

There’s a lot of preparatory work before a client is willing to trust us with their most valuable asset—their customers. So the sales cycle is long, complex and demanding. The programs are long-term, involving a multiple-year contract.

Some of our clients, especially those in the consumer products industries, have seen reduced sales and as a result a reduced need for our help.

On the other hand, the events of last Fall have also dramatically increased the work we do for some clients. We had a great year last year and are off to a fast start this year. 

Because we have a nice balance of clients across several industries and the government, we are able to withstand industry specific fluctuations very well.

How does AFFINA recruit and retain employees? Have you seen a change in those efforts in the last decade?

Employee retention efforts are at the forefront of what we do. Last year we had some of the lowest turnover numbers in the industry.

Unlike many companies, we don’t sell things. We use people and technology to solve our clients’ problems.

Therefore, people truly are our most valuable resource. To retain them we leave no stone unturned. Making sure our compensation is competitive heads the list, followed by the quality of our benefit plans.

We value education and do a lot of training. In addition, we have a college tuition reimbursement program we encourage employees to take advantage of. This program benefits them in the long run while upgrading the capabilities of our team.

We have a very diverse work force, so it’s important they’re able to tailor our benefits to their needs. So we try hard to meet the individual needs of each team member with flexible plans.

We also work hard to recognize people who perform well. Last year we gave away three new automobiles to three lucky winners who had perfect attendance.

This drawing gave us a chance throughout the year to remind everyone how important attendance is, and to celebrate and reward those who achieved perfect attendance. That’s an example of the type of creative things we do to recognize and reward individual contributors.

To have a career at any company there needs to be opportunities to grow, learn, and accept more responsibility. To accommodate this aspect, it’s important we continue to grow the business.

The larger we become, the more opportunities there are for our people to advance. I think you’d be surprised at the number of people we have who are receiving their 10, 15, 20, 25 year recognition awards. The number always astounds me.

What changes do you plan to make at AFFINA in the future? Will you always have a Peoria operation?

Peoria is where the company began and although we’ve thought about relocating, the benefits never justify the cost. This is a great town to raise a family in and, as a result, we’ve had good luck attracting talented people to the community.

I can’t see very far into the future these days, but my guess is we’ll continue to call Peoria home.

From a technology standpoint, the Internet is becoming an integral part of our daily lives. As a result, much of our technology focus is geared to work incorporating the Internet into our service offerings.

You had heart bypass surgery recently. How has that altered your work routine?

To be honest, it came as a real surprise. During an annual physical, my doctor detected something on the EKG that looked suspicious.

I ignored his advice for a few weeks, but he tracked me down and insisted I have some further tests. I agreed to the tests and went to the Cleveland Clinic to have them performed and never left the hospital.

At the conclusion of the tests, they scheduled me for open heart surgery the next morning.

That was a little scary. I felt fine—no pain, no symptoms—I just had several blocked arteries. The surgery was very successful, and today I’m more active than I was prior to the surgery.

What is the most challenging for your business? The most rewarding? 

As I said earlier the primary assets of our business are the men and women who solve problems for our clients. Without them we have nothing to sell and no business.

So the entire leadership of AFFINA spends a tremendous amount of time focused on our people. We have to develop leaders who can assume new and expanded responsibilities as our business grows.

The most rewarding part of my job is to watch people grow, learn, accept more responsibility and perform at an exceptional level.

It makes everything worthwhile and builds tremendous customer loyalty. IBI