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Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

June 18, 2005

No shame in its name

Henrietta firm fighting mistaken-identity woes

By Ben Rand
Staff writer

(June 18, 2005) — Terry Griswold and his partners wouldn't normally consider their company's name as something to worry about as they tend to the demands of their business.

And it's not, really — except for a very public case of mistaken identity that has put Griswold's Empire Valuation Consultants LLC on the defensive and brought a flurry of worried phone calls from customers.

Empire's name is similar to a company owned by a man who faces charges of mail fraud and money laundering stemming from his work as a local real estate appraiser.

Federal prosecutors allege that John E. Nicolo, 72, owner of Empire Valuation Services Inc., paid kickbacks from major corporate appraisal work to a now-fired Eastman Kodak Co. employee.

Though the two companies have similar names — Empire Valuation Consultants and Empire Valuation Services — they are not related in any way, Griswold says.

Nicolo's company, Empire Valuation Services Inc., has a billing address of 2293 Friend Road, Penn Yan, Yates County, and is involved assessing the market value of various types of real estate, according to federal court papers.

By contrast, Griswold's Empire Valuation Consultants, a limited liability company based at 3255 Brighton-Henrietta Town Line Road, Henrietta, estimates the values of private businesses, employee stock plans, patent portfolios and other types of assets. The company employs 50 people and also has offices in Atlanta, New York City and West Hartford, Conn.

Despite the clear differences in the two companies, Griswold and his partners have had to fend off concerns that their business had gone down the wrong track.

Empire Valuation Consultants got "hundreds of calls" after the charges involving the other company were made public, Griswold said. Many were from customers who were concerned they might have to find new business valuation consultants, he said. Partners also fielded questions at a trade show. In one instance, an attorney called and asked Griswold straight out: "Is this you?"

In response, Empire Valuation Consultants sent out a mass mailing to customers and posted a statement on its Web site, which is www.empireval.com, explaining the differences between the businesses.

Griswold said the situation is disconcerting because of the nature of the company's work, which demands uncompromising integrity and independence. "We get involved in situations where the credibility of Empire (Valuation Consultants) is important," he said.

The biggest concern, Griswold said, is not so much the people who are calling with questions — it's those potential clients who are forming a negative opinion without investigating.

Situations of mistaken identity in business are a relatively common problem, experts say. "It's a major concern for any small business owner. Your name is your reputation, and any confusion may cause great harm," said Pat Coakley, manager of the Rochester office of the Better Business Bureau.

The BBB takes steps to avoid mistaken identity in its own activities. When someone calls a BBB office with questions about a certain business, they are asked to provide certain defining characteristics, Coakley said. If callers don't have the information, the BBB will not answer questions. "You've got to be able to narrow it down — either give a complete address, or an owner and the company's name, or the owner and a phone number," she said. "We have to make sure we're talking about one and the same company."

Businesses today should resist the temptation to rely on the literal when selecting a name, said Steve Manning, managing director at Igor International, a San Francisco agency specializing in company names and brand identity. Manning is a 1978 graduate of Penfield High School.

"The least effective names," he said, "are often the most descriptive. ... They tend to dilute the name, make it hard for people to remember you and easy to get confused."

Manning uses his industry as an example. Many of his competitors use the word "name" in their titles — "Name Trade," "Name Stormer," "Name Lab."

His firm's name, Igor, "stands for hiring the ultimate assistant, a person who can bring your ultimate vision to life."

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