The following story was featured on syracuse.com as part of their weekly “Conversations on Leadership” column.
United Radio celebrates its 100th anniversary in January. Jacob Rubenstein founded the company in 1923 as a radio repair shop on Salina Street in downtown Syracuse.
Over the past century, the company adapted to changing demands and opportunities but remained family owned – now led by the third generation. Phil Rubenstein assumed the presidency from his father, Arnie, in 2005. Rubenstein and his sister, Mara Charlamb, who is vice president, are sole owners of the company.
Rubenstein said United Radio’s work covers three broad divisions. The automotive division is the largest and operates globally, repairing, re-manufacturing, and distributing any electronic device that runs off a vehicle’s battery. That includes things like instrument clusters, climate controls, engine-control modules, satellite radio, rear-seat entertainment, and so on. Automotive devices arrive at the company on Enterprise Parkway in DeWitt from more than 140 countries.
The consumer electronics division handles products like audio equipment, home-theater systems, and video-game devices.
The third division, concentrated in Upstate New York, sells, distributes, and repairs communication devices, mainly for people who need to talk or signal over systems other than cellular phones. “The first things that come to mind are police and fire, first responders if you will,” Rubenstein said. “But also we’re involved in other industries – delivery services, landscapers, anybody with a fleet of vehicles that need to speak to one another.”
Rubenstein says the company has thrived for decades guided by a belief in six core values that create lasting relationships, adapt to business challenges, and enrich lives. A leader in that kind of culture is always learning, always curious, always authentically themselves.
Give me some scale of the company – number of employees, your expansions in Georgia and Utah, and similar descriptions.
Our employment goes as high as 700 employees. We’re closer to about 640 right now, about 450 of which are here in Central New York. The rest are in Georgia and Utah.
Our workforce tends to follow a little bit of our seasons, so we use contract employees, particularly in our gaming-repair centers. In the summer months, people aren’t breaking their video games as much because they’re outside having fun. As the holiday season approaches, and typically into late February and early March, we can be processing as many as 3,000 to 4,000 units a day. So we bring in contract employees at that time of year and that’s when we have our highest numbers in terms of employment.
There is a logistical advantage with our locations. Our location in Peachtree City, Georgia, is about 20 minutes south of the Atlanta airport. With our facilities now in Salt Lake City, we can cover the entire country in three-day ground shipping.
We determined that we needed something in the Western part of the United States. We started looking for spaces toward the end of 2020. It was probably not the best time to be traveling and probably not the best time to be looking at expansion, but it really was the right timing for us.
Our Salt Lake City facility opened in December 2021. We started there in a sublet facility of about 36,000 square feet that we set up to get going on a project for a partner out there. In February, we started moving into our 148,000-square-foot facility that we will be growing into. We had our official grand opening Aug. 4.
I’d like to ask about your dad, Arnie. He’s so well known locally, both in business and also for his community involvement. What’s his role now?
Historian. (Laughter) He’s chairman of the board, but he is fully retired at this point. He does come into the office every day. He and I share an office. I take full advantage of that, because I can turn around and ask him questions. He spends most of his time here working on personal stuff.
My mom (Libby) and dad were very good role models. My parents were very involved in the community and I got to experience that and watch them.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
I am an Eagle Scout and spent many years involved in Boy Scouts and worked my way up through leadership in the Boy Scouts. I would say that’s where I learned quite a bit of my leadership and leadership skills – obviously in addition to observing my parents in leadership roles. In Boy Scouts, I worked my way up through like quartermaster – I think I started as bugler. But quartermaster and assistant patrol leader, patrol leader, assistant senior patrol leader. I was senior patrol leader for a number of years. I attribute much of my leadership education to the Scouts.
Give me an example of an instructive moment in Scouting.
There were a lot of them. (Laughter) I remember when I first became the senior patrol leader – basically in charge of the troop, if you will. I took on that role from someone who had a much different style than I did. I tried to be like what I had seen him be as a senior patrol leader and realized that wasn’t me and that it wasn’t going to work. Granted, I was young, so I was still developing my leadership style.
There were some rocky moments in the transition and I learned from them. Everybody leads differently. What I learned is that just because somebody’s style is different, doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong; it’s just different.
I see that at United Radio very profoundly in one of our core values, which is that our differences make us stronger. We need to look for and value and celebrate differences in people and not try to make everybody the same.
Being authentic is how we should be every day. It’s what trust is built on – being who you are and being authentic and being consistent.
Thanks for a great insight, but I interrupted your story. Tell me about college.
I went to the University of Rochester. The major I graduated with was psychology.
I started out as an electrical engineering major. My father’s an electrical engineer. My uncle was an electrical engineer. When I started college in 1984, there was a revolution going on toward personal computers.
As a freshman, they kept trying to teach me how to build a computer. Electrical engineering was all about building computers. I could fix a radio faster than the graduate students, but had little interest in building PCs. So I didn’t last as an electrical engineering major.
I was a cognitive science major for a while, which was an infant area of study. It was very interesting and eventually led to just the psychology part, which was less about artificial intelligence and more about the brain.
I was involved in the radio station and the campus theater group. I worked for the university on their audio-visual technical teams. The things that I was involved in – being a stage manager, technical director on a play, lighting design – those instances all involved learning how to lead volunteers. They were doing it for the same reason I was doing it, which is they had a passion for it, but they could walk away at any time. I learned how to get everybody rowing in the same direction.
What’s your advice to be an effective leader?
Always be learning, and always be curious. Leadership is a journey, and we recognize that everyone is at a different point in their leadership journey. Whether you’re just starting out or have been doing it for 50 years, there’s always more to learn and there are always ways to grow. It’s OK to admit when you’re wrong. You know, I don’t always get it right, but I can always learn from my mistakes.
Other advice I would give somebody is find a coach. We all have people in our lives, whether they’re mentors or coaches, somebody who can help you see things from a different angle or, as my coach likes to say, help you see with different eyes.
A leader needs to be authentic, knowing who you are and not afraid to act like it.
You mentioned curiosity. Where would you advise a leader to go to satisfy their curiosity?
One of the things that I tell the leaders at United Radio is I expect them to spend a certain amount of their time staring out the window, if you will, trying to see over the horizon, imagining what’s next, what’s coming down the road. If you think of something interesting, go research it. See who the experts are.
There’s no limit to where you can go to satisfy your curiosity. Do a lot of reading. Books are great. I love books, but periodicals will often be more timely, more up to date. So read magazines, newsletters. I can’t tell you the number of newsletters from all kinds of different places that hit my inbox every morning. Do I read them all every day? No, but I scan through, and I’ll spend time on the ones that catch my attention. It gives you something to think about, a thread to pull on, something new to explore. I’m not satisfied if I don’t learn something new every day.
What qualities do you see in good leaders?
I’d call it confident humility. When somebody’s really good at something, they might not necessarily know they’re really good at it. It becomes an unconscious competency, if you will, and they just do it.
The problem with that is if you don’t know you’re good at it, or why you’re good at it, you can’t teach it. To me, really good leaders are good teachers as well. They need humility and confidence in what they know well.
As people make the transition to a leadership role, the biggest hurdle is going from doing to leading. If they can’t teach what they did, they can’t have somebody else do it. As a leader, your job is to get things done through other people.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders?
Well, (laughing) that’s an interesting question because I tend to not call those people leaders.
Leadership is about people, not about process. Good leaders build relationships. Bad leaders break down relationships.
The most obvious attribute is a poor leader takes credit for the things that their people do. They may have been good at getting the people to do those things, but they’re a terrible leader when they don’t give the credit to the people who did it. A good leader is going to give credit and take blame. A bad leader is going to take credit and give blame.
Employees need leaders who set core values, live by the core values, and can paint a picture of where you’re going such that people want to get there.
You’ve mentioned core values a couple times. Does United Radio have core values?
We have six core values.
Our core values always existed, and a number of years ago we went through a process of writing them down. They were always there, but we didn’t talk about them. We all kind of lived them.
And so we spent time exploring and coming up with the words to say how we felt.
So at United Radio, we believe that all people have inherent value. We believe that our differences make us stronger. We believe that family sustains, stabilizes, and defines us. We believe that honesty and integrity will build lasting relationships. We believe that we have a responsibility to each other to create a better community. And we believe that learning, growing, and accepting challenges, enriches and fulfills our lives.
The six core values are the basis of how we run our business, how we make decisions, and most recently how we’ve structured a leadership development program at United Radio.
Tell me about your leadership development program.
We’re not quite done with our first year. It’s a two-year program in what leadership looks like at United Radio. The foundation of the entire program is those six core values.
We have five pillars built upon those six core values. One is recruitment, whether you’re talking about recruitment into the program or recruitment into United Radio. We have a pillar for training and that’s hard skills, supervisory skills, that sort of thing. We have mentoring and coaching. Then we have career development. And then we have succession planning.
There are 10 people in the current cohort and each cohort will probably be 10 people, maybe 12. Because it’s a two-year program, next year, we’ll be running two cohorts at the same time and every year after that.
We teach it internally, and also we bring in experts to teach parts of it. We do a full-day retreat once a month and a two-hour master class once a month. Sometimes there’s pre-work, books that we ask people to read. Mostly it’s a lot of discussion. Six of the classes the first year are deep dives into our core values. What do they mean? How do you recognize them being displayed? How do we violate our core values? What do we do when we recognize we’ve violated a core value?
In all of the skills that we teach, we’re tying back to the core values.
You said your parents modeled community involvement. You’ve taken that to heart, volunteering in organizations, donating space to Leadership Greater Syracuse, and the like. What are the benefits to be involved in the community like that?
There are a lot of benefits, and it’s not always just a business benefit. There are also personal benefits, personal growth.
When I serve on a board, I am there to help build a better community. I serve on boards here in Syracuse and I also do charitable giving in Utah and Georgia as well, because we have United Radio families in those cities. We owe it to them to help build a better community there as well. As a leader, it’s our responsibility to give back.
It’s also a leader’s responsibility to teach. Over the summer, we had our class on building a better community. That led to our volunteers at the Mary Nelson backpack giveaway. We teach that building community takes a lot of people doing a lot of different things. I serve on different boards locally, but I also donate to organizations I’m not involved in but believe in their mission. So whether I’m giving of my time, my talent, or my treasure, I’m helping to make a better world for all of us, at least that’s the hope.
I personally believe the world would be a better place if we all just valued each other more.
The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. Last week featured Col. William J. McCrink III, commander of the 174th Attack Wing based at Syracuse’s Hancock Field. Col. McCrink shared five elements of leadership.