When I first scheduled an interview with Progressive Expert Consulting (PEC), I expected an ordinary office atmosphere, people busy in cubicles and the smell of coffee—the usual. But PEC is not ordinary—in any way— and I found that out as soon as I walked into their office on the Northside. The lobby is slightly dim with comfortable furniture, a table, and shelves lined with books and decorated with small flags from around the world. Projected on to the far wall is the company’s name, adding light to the space and just the right amount of magic. I thought, “There’s really something happening here.”
I was quickly greeted and ushered in to the primary office space of Michael J. Feng, one of the sons of PEC’s founding family. In 1987 his parents founded the company, then working mostly in network consulting with an emphasis on software projects for the government. Eventually, in the 90’s, they worked with different school districts (such as, North Syracuse and Marcellus) as they entered into the computer age. During that time you may remember a small internet café at Shopping Town Mall that functioned as the company’s storefront with offices located in the back. “It was a fun thing to do,” Mike explains, joking about having an easy route to your morning coffee.
Now, in the twenty-first century, PEC is a bustling company, still fairly small with around 45 employees. And it’s still a family company—Michael’s mother is still the owner. Their main customer is now the U.S. Military who have a need for language training in virtual classrooms. “We are not like Rosetta Stone,” Mike explains, “This is an actual, live class.” In these virtual classrooms, students and teachers can share webpages and virtual white boards. All of the teachers are native speakers of the language they teach and all classes are monitored in a “control room” to make sure the technology runs smoothly. Currently, there are around 160 classes and 1,000 students in the system: waiting for classes, recently graduated, taking classes, etc. Most of the classes are attended by students around the U.S., but also in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. PEC has the capacity to teach 72 different languages, including Persian, Russian, Swahili, and Cambodian.
But these language training classes are not the classes you and I are used to. “It’s not just about vocab,” he says. Students learn not only what to say, but how to say it, keeping in mind unique cultural norms and expectations that Americans may not be used to. Because these training classes are for the military, PEC has a much larger responsibility than simply getting students to conjugate verbs. Mike explains that the goal itself is different: “Go out there. Communicate with people and stay alive.”
In fact, among all of the extraordinary things that PEC does (check out one of my favorite programs, IDEAtel), working with the military is one project that Mike thinks is really extraordinary. His older brother served in the Navy and Mike himself served in the Air Force. “It’s an honor for us to be a part of this,” he tells me.
Aside from the language training program, PEC offers many other services. In answer to my simple-yet-complex question, “What does PEC do?” Mike smiles and says, “We bring creative solutions to customers.” The staff here must be extremely creative and “if there are good ideas out there, we encourage working together.” An open-door policy within the office encourages creativity. So does the picturesque artwork that adorns the walls, the sleek desks and furniture, the glass walls. The office motto is, “Let’s have fun,” and although the work at PEC is very challenging, there needs to be an aspect of playfulness as staff creates inventive solutions and stays on par with rapidly-developing technologies. Mike refers to his employees as “extended family” and explains, “When you find good people, you want to take care of them.”
“As a company we’re very young,” Mike tells me, “We have a young energetic group. It helps. It makes us nimble. When things do change, we can change.” Although this “youthful excitement” is a major asset to the office, it’s deeply grounded on the executive end where Mike’s parents guide the company with their experience and knowledge.
In fact, “grounded” is a good way to describe PEC. This very successful company on the Northside, founded by two Chinese entrepreneurs, is still humble. The family also owns Inspiration Hall, a church across the street that hosts speakers, comedians, musical events, children’s choirs, etc. Inspiration Hall is quickly becoming well established in the Northside and views itself as a community place. “What really inspires [PEC] and grounds us is faith. For us, a lot of what we do on the business side and the ministry side gets blurred—and that’s okay.”
With its rich cultural fabric, the Northside is home to many businesses that have unique approaches to community and innovation. PEC is a great business model for other Northside entrepreneurs. It has to constantly change in order to stay relevant, but it’s core has always stayed the same: fun, faith, and family.