New Eastside business tops best places to work

Crain’s Chicago Business released the results of its annual Best Places to Work report for 2017. This year Microsoft, with Midwest district offices based out of New Eastside at 200 E. Randolph, landed the top spot on the list. Microsoft was also No.1 on Crain’s inaugural list of Chicago’s Best Places to Work for Minorities.

Location is a critical part of being a great place to work, says Midwest Operations and Community Manager, Mary Monroy-Spampinato, who has been at the company for 16 years. She adds New Eastside offers “many restaurants, shopping options” and “beautiful views and easy access to parks for walks or concerts.”

Businesses in Cook County and six surrounding counties with “more than 50 full-time employees” were eligible to apply, Crain’s reported. The publication ranked the participating companies using answers to two surveys: a quan- titative employer survey to measure corporate policies and benefits, and a qualitative survey to assess employee experience.

There were 195 applicants and respons- es from more than 14,900 area employ- ees, and what sets Microsoft apart is the opportunity to work with “incred- ibly smart and compassionate” peers “who love their communities as much as they love technology,” says Adam

Hecktman, director of technology & civic innovation for Chicago, a 25-year veteran at the company.

— Ben Cirrus, Community Contributor

Prudential’s new electric bus fleet

parker01-01A new fleet of 10 “nautically themed” electric buses aims to give Aon and Prudential workers a cleaner, more colorful commute.

On Dec. 5 the new shuttles, each featuring a different sea creature, will replace eight “loud and dirty” diesel buses, according to Prudential general manager Bryan Oyster.

“We recognized the tenants coming into the building were environmentally conscious,” says Oyster. “And, we wanted a design that stood out in the community.”

Design highlights include an octopus wrapping its tentacles around the Aon and Prudential Buildings, a bright red lobster whose claw bisects the Aon and Prudential Buildings and a lime-green seahorse carrying a checkered patterned picture of a diver on its back. According to bus manufacturer Proterra, Aon and Prudential will be the first commercial office buildings in the country to lease a zero-emission electric shuttle fleet. 


The octopus-themed bus in Prudential’s new electric fleet

Each building will lease five buses, with routes continuing to/from Ogilvie, Union, and LaSalle Street Stations from 6:15 to 9:30 a.m. each morning, and from 4 to 7:30 p.m. each night. A new app-based ticketing system will enable commuters to purchase tickets online and track buses in real time.

As the new buses are rolled out, shuttle fares will bump up a quarter, from $1.75 to $2.00 each way.

— Tricia Parker

Wanda severs New Eastside

The benefits of the Wanda Vista Tower will be realized in 2019.
Until then, New Eastside residents and business owners make sacrifices.


On a warm September Saturday night, the scene at Island Party Hut was idyllic: a group of laughing women pose for a picture, beanbags slap against colorful boards. But something important was missing.

“No one,” said Steve, one of three owners, who preferred to use his first name only, as he glanced around. “There’s no [neighbors] here. There used to be 10 or 20.”

Steve turned back after scanning the 80 or so customers. “I know it doesn’t sound like a lot. But 10 or 20 would be awesome to have.”

Three weeks after the Wanda construction site severed the neighborhood’s Field Blvd. riverfront connection Aug. 22, Steve and other local business owners were feeling the impact—financial and otherwise.

“The biggest [issue] is navigating people down here,” said Urban Kayaks owner Aaron Gershenzon, referring to the many customers who use Millennium Garage. Tourists make up the Riverwalk business’s main clientele, but Gershenzon says a “decent percentage” come from Lakeshore East.

img_9658awebWhile the Wanda opening in early 2020 promises a relit and repaved route to the riverfront, business owners still face three long summers without direct access to a loyal customer base. Steve estimates New Eastsiders made up about 20 percent of Island Party Hut’s business before the Wanda closure; that number’s now dropped to 10 percent. Questions also linger about why businesses weren’t informed about the closure earlier.

“A customer said they couldn’t get to the place,” said Steve. “A few days later, residents said it would be closed two to three years. We didn’t know it was going to be closed.”

A Magellan representative confirmed Steve’s observation. “I have to admit I did not send them a notice… so there’s really no good explanation,” said the representative.

As for neighbors, reactions to the new inconvenience seemed mixed, both highlighting business owners’ worst fears and also offering a sliver of hope.

“We used to go to [Island Party Hut] before, but not since the path closed, because of the kids,” said Ulla Rittstieg, who lives in The Shoreham with her one- and three-year-old children.

img_9280webI’m by myself, so it’s easy,” added fellow Shoreham resident Elizabeth Grabill, who claimed she’d keep patronizing the riverfront businesses, regardless of the extra distance.

Steve and Gershenzon urged neighbors to keep in mind the Magellan discount — 20 percent at Urban Kayaks and 15 percent at Island Party Hut. Steve also encouraged neighbors to support Island Party Hut’s pumpkin patch and inaugural Christmas tree sale. This year will be the first year Island Party Hut stays open through the fall, until Dec. 21, Steve estimates, thanks to two covered tents.

“Continue to fight for access to the riverwalk,” Steve encouraged neighbors. “Please come any way you can.”

Working in the sky over New Eastside

The architecture of the New Eastside may shape the neighborhood’s skyline, but window washers make it really shine. The squeegee-wielding glass-tenders who hang from the Aon tower, Aqua, Fairmont, Hyatt Hotel and several more local buildings are trained and employed by Corporate Cleaning Services, a company founded by a tireless entrepreneur.

CEO Neal Zucker was inspired to get into the window washing business by an epiphany that appeared before him in downtown Chicago in 1994. “I was walking around and I saw that there was a lot of glass around,” he says.


Corporate Cleaning Founder / CEO Neal Zucker

At the time, he was a trader pursuing a Kellogg MBA who wanted to avoid the road typically travelled by his peers. “I just knew, sitting in those classes, that I was not going to be an investment banker,” he remembers. “There’s so much more.”

So he “bought into” a housekeeping and window washing business. “I lived in a building and there was a need to hire housekeepers to clean the corporate apartments,” he explains. “It filled that need.” As the company grew, he increasingly focused on the window washing service.

Today, Corporate Cleaning Services is the largest window washing company in Chicago. “We have over a hundred window washers and a very diverse portfolio,” Zucker says. Roughly 1,200 properties rely on the company to wash their windows and perform interior cleaning operations.

Besides the top shelf properties in New Eastside, Corporate Cleaning handles the Hancock, the United Center, the Willis Tower and a list of condominiums, high-rises and universities that reads like a who’s who of architectural greatness.

Zucker’s enthusiasm for the company’s success is matched by a devotion to the “amazing staff of hardworking people” who make it happen. He is quick to point out that Corporate Cleaning is the largest employer of union washers in Chicago and one of the largest employers of Latinos in the city. Above all else, he seems proud to protect them.

“When we say safety’s our priority, we mean it,” he says. The company not only employs a safety manager — which is somewhat rare in the industry — but it also exceeds requirements prescribed by the government’s Occupational Safety Hazard Authority.

Executive Director of Operations Oralia Castañeda oversees this over compliance. She knows ropes and harnesses like a veteran, and hopes to hang from the side of a building for her first time this summer. She came to Chicago from Rockford for a career in law, but something about the company’s culture intrigued her.

Working in the window washing business.

“We thrive on each others’ success,” Castañeda explains. “That goes for the entire team. I know every single one of the window washers by name. I know the story behind them.”


Efrem Salas prepares to clean windows 225 N. Michigan Ave. Photo: Robert Stockwell.

Two in particular, Ernesto Rodriguez and Efrem Salas, were featured in a commercial for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

It shows them preparing and descending from the top of BCBS’ New Eastside high-rise on E. Randolph St. — another one of Corporate Cleaning’s customers — while a narrator explains why Anthem Health Insurance is so good for hardworking people.

According to Salas, he was “a little bit nervous” the first time he hung from the side of a building.

“But now I can do it,” he laughs. “It’s easy for me.”

Salas immigrated to Chicago from Zacatecas, Mexico, seven years ago and got the job at Corporate Cleaning with the help of his brother.

In conversation, he speaks with impeccable grace and kindness, a manner that filmmaker Nadav Kurtz found to be common among the company’s employees while making “Paraiso,” an award-winning 2012 documentary about window washers.

During production, Kurtz grew close to three of the men and their families. “I felt really welcome and comfortable,” he remembers. “They were always trying to buy me tacos and stuff.”

The footage of “Paraiso” is no doubt breathtaking, but the theme is even more powerful: “This is a film about guys who work really hard and take care of their families,” Kurtz explains.


Erenesto Rodriguez prepares to descend the Blue Cross Blue Shield building.

As it turns out, these guys work hard for other peoples’ families as well. Twice a year, Corporate Cleaning’s window washers entertain patients at Kolmer Hospital and Lurie Children’s Hospital by wearing superhero costumes while scaling the exterior.

Immediately after the inagural event, says Castañeda, they started figuring out how to have more interaction with the kids on the next trip down.

CEO Zucker, who spends much of his success serving on boards for charitable organizations, could not be more pleased with the way business is going.

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

Corporate Cleaning Services · (312) 573-3333 ·

New Eastside’s global ad agency — DDB Chicago

Award-winning shop creates ads for the world’s largest brands

In the early 2000s, advertising agency DDB Chicago turned the expression “Whassup?” into an everyday salutation by shamelessly repeating it in a series of award-winning Budweiser television commercials that were conceived in the New Eastside’s Aon Center.

Since then, the company has continued to influence popular culture from the same location; but a lot of its work doesn’t look anything like a commercial or even play on a TV. Here’s how the mid-sized agency keeps its wits.

“Creativity is at the heart of everything,” says Chief Executive Officer Paul Gunning. “I love the creative process.”


DDB’s “GOL!” campaign for McDonald’s

Gunning, who has been at the helm of DDB Chicago since 2013, is frequently hailed as a “successful new breed” of CEO. The description generally implies two things: First, he has worked for a company with an interesting name (in this case, “Tribal Worldwide,” the digital unit of DDB); Second, the company with the interesting name is still in business (in Tribal’s case, excessively so: it consistently ranks among the world’s best digital agencies).

To create effective advertising, DDB Chicago sizes up the tastes of millions of people who might be tempted to buy a product the agency wants to sell. In order to accomplish this, the agency must obtain solid data from the slippery social mediascape of modern America. The task comes naturally to the successful new breed of CEOs.

“We look at the average U.S. shopper all the time,” Gunning says. “They’re willing to forego a lot of things in their life to have a sizable mobile phone contract.”

Gunning understands that people are not only willing to make a “serious trade-off” to enjoy the luxury of their smart phones — “the average bill is $110 per month,” he continues — but they also might fund their phones by paying for and watching less TV.

“It’s changed everything,” he says. “Where they spend their time, how they find things. Advertising has to change with it.”


DDB’s “GOL!” campaign for McDonald’s

Fortunately, DDB Chicago works with McDonald’s, a restaurant that offers an affordable product and, as it turns out, shares his commitment to deal with customers on their own digital terms.

One of the early programs to emerge from their relationship was a French fry box that could transform a smart phone into an interactive digital soccer game when diners scanned a QVC code on the package’s design. It was a campaign called “Gol” that ran in conjunction with the World Cup and won praise for technical innovation and creativity.

But that was just the beginning.

DDB Chicago dialed it up even more for last year’s Super Bowl. Their idea was for McDonald’s to award a prize corresponding to every commercial that aired during the game on a contest run through the restaurant’s Twitter account. They called it “McDonald’s ‘Lovin’ the Super Bowl.’”

By channeling the hype of the traditionally famous ads through the newfangled portal of social media, they could potentially connect their client’s brand with an audience that exceeded the record-breaking numbers normally associated with the event. It would require the expertise of several vendors in addition to DDB.

“It was a totally new and unheard of way to go to the Super Bowl,” says Gunning.

It also made quite an exciting game for the team behind the scenes, which, according to Gunning, “involved well over a hundred people from four or five different agencies.”


Behind the scenes during McDonald’s Super Bowl Giveaway

Their greatest challenge was to create and deliver Tweets from a downtown Chicago office while the action was happening live. Since the NFL often does not identify all of the commercials scheduled to run during a Super Bowl, some of them were constructed in real time.

“We had everything from producers to creative,” Gunning says. “We had account folks who were checking off on legal.”

As the commercials ran, a chief production officer would contact an associate in New York and California to ensure that the ad was, indeed, playing all over the country. Then the team back in Chicago would Tweet a message offering the chance to win a prize for anyone who re-tweeted it.

There was also a blizzard, which complicated the commute for some of the people who needed to join the crew on the back end, but Gunning says that only “added to the level of excitement.”

“The trickiest parts were to make it exciting,” he remembers. “For the Mexican Avocado Growers Association, we gave away one avocado. But you got a trip to Mexico to pick it up.”

In March, DDB Chicago won the 2016 Shorty Award for Mid-Size Agency of the Year, an honor that Fast Company magazine describes as “The Oscars of Social Media.” The company earned that recognition partly due to the success of “McDonald’s ‘Lovin’ the Super Bowl’” campaign, which won three Shorties.

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

The making of Keys To Time

The story behind one of the Pedway’s oldest businesses

In 1976, newlyweds Art and Kathy Alekno opened a key-copying service in the Pedway under the lobby of 233 N. Michigan Ave. Having turned a profit doing similar business in flea markets near Marquette Park since their high school days in the late 1960s, they felt ready to try the newfangled, indoor retail thoroughfare. This March, just a few steps away from the place where it all began, they’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of Keys To Time.

“I was working at an industrial plant and I wanted to go out on my own,” says Art. “I wanted to do something for myself.” Art had learned the key-copying trade while working at a local Sears store in high school. He had also noticed that Sears was successful despite its flaws, namely a lack of personalized customer service and an overall disregard for precision.

“When I came down here, it was like, ‘yeah, this might work,’ Kathy remembers. “If it doesn’t, we crash it.” Kathy had earned a BS in Chemistry from UIC and was working in Walgreen’s quality control department when they launched the business. She helped run the store part-time for a few years before leaving Corporate America to join Art in the Pedway for good.

When they set up shop, the concourse was far from becoming the labyrinthine retail marketplace that it is today. “There were only three buildings,” Art recalls. “This building, One Illinois Center and what is now the west tower of the Hyatt.”

A hundred yards east of their kiosk, the Pedway abruptly came to an end where a few doors opened to a field that extended to Lake Shore Drive. Besides the tracks of the Illinois Central railroad, there was little else. Over the next four decades, the landscape would transform into a three-par golf course and, eventually, The Aqua, Lake Shore East Park and an urban nook full of upscale high-rise condominiums and shops. The Pedway would grow to nearly connect them all.

Among their shop’s neighbors were handful of food operations and a few regular stores, but most have since moved on. “The bank and the barbershop are the only two that are the same as when we first opened,” Art says.

The Aleknos had learned from their flea market days that foot traffic generated business. “It’s an impulse type thing,” Kathy explains. “People walk by and they see us and think, ‘oh, I need a key.’” Since the Illinois Center was less than two years old, they knew that many Chicagoans had yet to discover the Pedway. Fortunately, the location of their shop is highly visible as an open kiosk along a thoroughfare.

“This building at the time wanted kiosks in the middle,” Kathy says.

Before long, Art’s knack for the process paid off. “We ask the customers if they ever have problems with their keys,” he explains. “Then we make modifications to help the new key insert or turn more easily.”

Business picked up so quickly that they soon added watch repair and maintenance to the list of services. Besides customizing the sizes of individual bands, Keys To Time now stocks 70 different types of batteries for replacing garage door openers, car remotes — “anything that uses batteries like that” says Art — as well as watches.

In 1980, Kathy decided to investigate a nearby residential building under construction at 233 E. Wacker Dr. “I thought I’ll go over and see what they’re charging,” she remembers. She liked the units, calculated the amount they’d save from not commuting to work every day and convinced her husband to move into a rental in what is now Columbus Plaza. The geography and the neighborhood were so agreeable that, six years later, they bought a place of their own a few blocks east on Upper Wacker Drive.

As the business became something like a second home for the Aleknos, the customers grew into something like a family. “We’ve been here so long, we have people who have retired and moved out of the city but will make a special trip down with watches,” says Kathy. People from as far away as Florida stop by when they visit Chicago, and flight attendants frequently drop off watches and keys during layovers in the area’s hotels.

For some, the success of a business that started in a flea market stall with a machine powered by two 12-volt marine batteries may seem remarkable. But according to Art, it’s nothing more than hard work and quality service.

“The concept is very simple: you are tracing the original key,” he says. “But we can make new keys that work better, which very few places do.”

Keys to Time · (312) 861-1294 · 233 N. Michigan Ave. · Chicago, IL 60601

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

Inside bKL Architecture and Design’s 3D world of ideas

By Daniel Patton | Managing Editor

bKL Architecture and Design is home to a miniature neighborhood of some of the New Eastside’s most noteworthy buildings, all contained within their offices at 225. N. Columbus Dr.

The company that conceived the GEMS Lower School and Coast at Lakeshore East presents its ideas to clients in the form of computer simulations as well as miniature physical replicas, a unique process in a time when most firms are ditching the 3D scale models and relying exclusively on digital renderings.

“A personal belief of mine,” says bKL Principal Tom Kerwin, “is that the only way to fully understand a design is by building a 3-dimensional scale model of the project.”

This dedication to old-school methodology has served Kerwin well. Since founding the firm with the support of James Loewenberg in 2010, he has expanded bKL’s size to 60 employees and spread its vision across the globe.

Besides Chicago, the company’s designs are enhancing skylines in Toronto, Texas, Miami and Asia.


bKL’s scale model of 200 N. Michigan Avenue. Photo and imagery credit: bKL Architecture LLC

For residents of the New Eastside, bKL’s most visible work-in-progress is the 42-story mixed-use tower under construction at 200 N. Michigan Ave. Named “MILA,” it is a portmanteau of the streets that form the intersection where it stands, Michigan and Lake.

When completed, MILA will have two stories of retail space and a multiple-story light sculpture that hides the parking garage. Above that, 406 residential units on the remaining 36 stories will rise 400 feet into the air, ultimately reaching a rooftop that contains a terrace and a swimming pool.

According to Kerwin, MILA’s appearance should brighten the “heavy masonry and dark steel buildings” that create a “somewhat foreboding” stretch of Michigan Avenue between Randolph St. and the Chicago River.

But all of the details on the outside, appealing as they may be, were designed to accommodate the things happening on the inside.

The longest side of the building faces Lake Street because that offers more unobstructed southern and western views from the units above. The parking garage had to be built above ground because the foundations of nearby buildings prohibited underground excavation. This resulted in a dramatically appealing retail space.

“Cars enter the parking area from Lower Michigan,” says Kerwin, “but they have to park above the retail floors.”

The solution, an oval ramp that winds around the first and seond stories, required a feat of architectural “gymnastics” that Kerwin believes is easier to demonstrate than to explain.

“If I show you a model,” he says, “you can really understand it.”

New home care program matches seniors with seniors

By Daniel Patton | Managing Editor

In September, Sylvie Hutchings launched a Chicago-based franchise of Seniors Helping Seniors (SHS), a home care service that hires people who are at least 50 years-old to help make life easier for seniors who prefer a like-minded caregiver.

Hutchings screens, trains and equips her staff to visit the homes of clients and pitch in with tasks and chores — like many domestic nonmedical service providers — but the similarities between her franchise and the rest of the industry pretty much ends there.

SHS carefully matches the backgrounds, hobbies and interests of its employees with those of its clients. Ideally, this leads to a mutually beneficial relationship between “provider” and “receiver.”

Sylvie Hutchings

Sylvie Hutchings

“We employ people who instinctively volunteer their time to help in the community,” she explains. “All the people who work for me are saints.”

Although a typical day frequently involves light cooking and cleaning, SHS is committed to helping do “anything that needs to be done.”

Hutchings completed several training sessions before opening the franchise, but it was a natural instinct that inspired her to make it happen in the first place. Raised in a small town on the Atlantic coast of France, she thanks her parents, who were “always giving and generous,” for showing her the power of selflessness.

While caring for her father during his final years, she was inspired “to help older people.” The credentials of SHS cofounder, Kiran Yocom, caught her attention. “She actually worked with Mother Theresa for 14 years,” Hutchings explains.

Hutchings also grew to understand the resistance that people have to asking for help after having undergone major surgery herself. “It’s very challenging  [for people] to call us. We all want our independence but sometimes you don’t have the choice. The elderly want to live their own lives,” she explains. “We don’t want to take that independence away. We want to help.”

Sylvie Hutchings Seniors Helping Seniors franchise, which specializes in house calls, can be reached at (312) 526-3666 or email:

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