BOSTON — In 1918, Fran Rodgers' grandmother emigrated from the Ukraine and two weeks later started selling linens from a pushcart in front of her New York tenement so she could work while watching her two small children.
Years later, Rodgers' mother went into the upholstery business with her father, taking Rodgers to work with her until she was school age.
Coming from a line of women who successfully balanced work and family life, it seemed natural that Rodgers, the mother of two girls, would follow in the family tradition--but not necessarily that she would found and run a $50-million company dedicated to helping parents pull off that same juggling act.
Considered on the cutting edge of corporate change, Work-Family Directions Inc. has grown in a decade from a $2-million enterprise with six employees and one client to a company with a staff of 350 and corporate clients numbering 215. Those include IBM, AT&T and General Electric.
"People call me a visionary, but I'm not," Rodgers said, slightly exasperated, during a recent interview.
"I have a good sense of timing, of seeing the future, but most of what I know comes from my past. I grew up with people who found solutions to working and raising children."
Her company helps working parents find child or elder care, researches appropriate schools and universities and provides counseling on all matters related to dependent care that might otherwise occupy precious work time.
Rodgers, 48, knows that finding a balance between work and family does not come easily to most parents and that employers are having a tough time adapting to changes in the country's work force.
It is expected that by century's end, about two-thirds of new workers will be women. About 75% of them will be pregnant at some point during their working years, government research shows.
Most observers of labor trends agree that if companies are to remain competitive and have access to the largest talent pools, they must make the workplace friendly to working parents.
"It's not just a social issue," said Rodgers. "It's a major business issue."
But Rodgers is interested in more than just her company's bottom line; she is committed to Work-Family's mission, said Dana Friedman, co-director of the Families and Work Institute, a New York-based consulting and research group.
"Work-Family Directions was not born out of a desire to run a successful business," Friedman said. "It was born out of a desire to help others. (Rodgers) has a background that she has never wavered from."
Rodgers and Work-Family do not fit the profile of the powerhouse team they have become. On the door to her office is a sign in a child's colorful scrawl: "President Fran's Office--Otherwise Known as Mom."
Large, framed photos of employees and their families line the winding company halls that open into seminar rooms, quiet spaces filled with rows of cubicles and telephone counselors. Rodgers' small, sparsely furnished office is filled with pictures of her own family.
That is all part of what Rodgers is trying to convey: A company can be effective, with as much as 20% annual growth in recent years, and be a comfortable place to work.
Deborah Stahl, director of the AT&T Family Care Development Fund, who has worked with Rodgers since 1989, describes her as having a rare combination of creativity and business acumen.
"I'm consistently impressed with the business she has built and her deep knowledge in many areas," Stahl said.
Rodgers, she said, uses real-life stories, including her own, to convert the unconverted--business executives who are not really sure why they need to spend more money on employees in times of tight resources.
Since 1990, some 32,000 AT&T employees nationwide have taken advantage of the Work-Family service. In the latest evaluations, 87% of AT&T employees said they found the service helpful, while 92% said they would use it again or recommend it to a co-worker, Stahl said.
Work-Family estimates that its counselors receive 1,000 phone calls daily from clients, double the amount the company received in 1993.
That is partly because the Work-Family mission has expanded, a reflection of Rodgers' ability to stay ahead of the curve.
Before last year, Work-Family offered mostly child and elder care referrals. Now the idea--under the name LifeWorks--is to help employees through all life cycles and problems. Phone counseling was introduced.
"We're helping people solve not just the crises but the everyday things people go through," Rodgers said. "We're here when they have nowhere to turn."
Companies spend a relatively modest $15 to $25 per employee for access to the service.
Work-Family also oversees $75 million in investments in child and elder care programs, including a massive effort begun two years ago by the country's largest companies to invest jointly in these areas.
In keeping with the family tradition of working alongside a spouse, Work-Family's research arm has been run for the past six years by Rodgers' husband, Charles.