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Face of the place: Dedicated employees add a personal brand to businesses

With his bushy mustache, six-foot seven-inch frame and irrepressible smile, Ron Magill certainly stands out at Zoo Miami — even among the lions, tigers and bears. But those aren’t the only reasons the zoo’s communications director deserves the role of goodwill ambassador for the South Florida attraction.

“I think it’s almost impossible not to think about Ron Magill when you hear Zoo Miami,” says Mayra Fernandez, 59, who has been a fan of the zoo since it opened in 1980. “He’s definitely the face of the place. His energy and charisma make him unforgettable.”

Aldo Vazquez may not be as well known as Magill, but his enthusiasm brightens shoppers’ trips to Publix. Then there’s Cathy Szalva, who welcomes both humans and pooches at Laura’s Classy Canines; Cheryl Wynter, the go-to source at the Consulate General of Jamaica; and public address announcer Jay Rokeach, whose voice conveys the triumphs and calamities of sports.

At a time when a stagnant economy, salary cuts and layoffs take center stage, these employees still see their jobs as a labor of love. What’s more, they bring businesses a priceless type of branding.

“Anyone can copy a business idea,” says Melissa Cassera, the CEO and president of Cassera Communications. “But they can’t copy your own personality, your own unique qualities, or your own attributes. It’s what makes you stand out from the pack.”

Author William Arruda, who has worked with brands like Microsoft and Disney, says, “I think a lot of companies see it as a risk when you put an employee as the face of the company, but it’s really an incredible opportunity.”

These special employees usually follow three steps, Arruda says: They find what they’re passionate about, what they’re good at, and what they can bring to the table that others can’t.

“It’s the little things that matter the most,” says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding and author of the book Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future (Kaplan Publishing). “These employees who become the face of the place make me feel like they’re taking care of me. It’s the small things that they do that can make a customer want to come back. However, it works better with mom-and-pop shops. It doesn’t seem as natural with big companies.”

For Magill, Vazquez, Szalva, Wynter and Rokeach, going the extra mile isn’t just good business. It’s good for everyone.

Ron Magill

When he was a kid, Ron Magill would sit Indian-style in front of the TV on Sunday nights to watch Wild Kingdom, waiting for his longtime hero, Jim Fowler, to appear on the screen.

“I was a kid that was fascinated with wildlife,” he said. “Watching Jim Fowler on his show, I knew working with animals was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Decades later, Magill is “very good friends” with Fowler, he has become a wildlife photographer and he works at his dream job as Zoo Miami’s communications director. He has also worked on Emmy-nominated nature programs, handled the animals on the set of Miami Vice and has appeared on Late Show With David Letterman, Sábado Gigante, the Today show and The Early Show, usually accompanied by a snake, owl or wild animal. Magill can hold his own with such competition for the camera. In fact, his enthusiasm for animals helped him land his job in the first place.

“The zoo’s spokesperson at the time was talking to the media, giving a monotone and boring description of a project I was closely involved with,” says Magill, who has worked at Zoo Miami (formerly Miami Metrozoo) for more than 30 years. “And I kind of took over and started telling the media what they wanted to hear. I was excited about it and they started talking to me rather than our spokesperson.”

After being reprimanded for speaking to the media, which didn’t fall in his job description as assistant curator, Magill nevertheless ended up as communications director.

“[The zoo’s founding director] Robert Yokel said, ‘The media likes you. You know what you’re talking about. So, from now on you’re the official spokesperson,’” he recalls.

Magill knows he’s lucky to do a job he loves.

“It’s the greatest scam,” he says with a smile. “I get paid to do things that people pay to do. I’ve traveled to Africa more than 40 times, Central and South America over 50 times. I’ve tracked elephants in the Serengeti. It’s incredible.”

Aldo Vazquez

Walking through the Publix deli on Le Jeune Road, most customers will hear someone trying to grab Aldo Vazquez’s attention.

The 53-year-old, who was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, brings a positive attitude to work every day, a rule he has lived by for the nine years he has worked at the deli. And his happiness is infectious.

“Our customers seek out Aldo because they know they will receive superior service from a knowledgeable associate who always has a smile on his face,” store manager Shane Nelson said.

After moving to the United States from Cuba, where he was a science teacher, Vazquez worked at Florida Environmental Care, a landscaping company, for two years. But when he heard about the supermarket chain, he decided to apply. One week later, he found out he had the job.

“I love it all, I love my job,” Vazquez says. “My favorite part is assisting the customers. I think they know who I am because of the respect and sincerity I treat them with. I respect my job and my customers are my job.”

And considering his reputation with customers, Vazquez’s approach is working.

“It’s funny because I’ll be skating around my neighborhood and they’ll stop and say hello,” he laughs. “I’ve received invitations to wedding anniversaries and other occasions. I’ve even had coffee with some customers.”

His people-friendly attitude makes Vazquez stand out, even if he is having a bad day.

“Working is very important to me because it’s how I support my family,” he said. “So when I leave my house, my problems stay there. With this job, I talk to people all day, so bringing happiness with me to work is very important.”

Cathy Szalva

Cathy Szalva’s main job requirement is to love animals.

“If I didn’t love animals, I’d be in trouble,” she says.

Szalva, the receptionist at Laura’s Classy Canines, has developed a bond with pets and their owners at the grooming shop.

“I’m the person everyone talks to and sees when they come in,” she says. “It’s funny because when I first started here, I’d answer the phone and they’d always ask for my sister, Laura, who owns the shop. Now she’ll answer the phone and she’ll hear, ‘Oh, can I speak to Cathy?’”

Before working with her sister, Szalva dabbled in a bit of everything, including a plumbing contracting company, a custom fabric company, and a court-reporting agency. “You name it,” she says.

But when her most recent job, selling designer fabrics to interior designers, fell through eight years ago, Szalva was looking for work and decided to join her sister at the shop.

“I love it because it’s never the same day twice,” she said. “I make sure to smile and keep a positive attitude, which can be hard at times.”

But living by her father’s advice has helped.

“He used to say, ‘Take a deep breath, relax and just know that in 100 years no one will ever know the difference,’” Szalva says. “It really puts things into perspective.”

Her position at the shop doesn’t allow for days off, “unless I’m dying,” she says. However, she tries to make the most of it: “No matter what’s going on, I have to make sure I smile. Just because you’re having a bad day doesn’t mean you can have a bad attitude.”

And her effort doesn’t go unnoticed.

“My dog, Zoe, and me get excited to visit Laura’s,” says Kim Lerner, who has been a frequent customer at the shop for almost five years. “It’s such a pleasure to see the harmony between Cathy and Laura. Cathy has such a warm smile and she always knows what you want as soon as you walk in. She makes coming in an absolute delight.”

Cheryl Wynter

Jamaica marked its 50th Independence Day in August, which gave the Consulate General of Jamaica in Miami a reason to celebrate. Cheryl Wynter, the consulate’s information director, was also the project coordinator for the celebration.

“I’d say that right now is the most exciting time for me at work since I started working here in 1999,” she says. “I’ve had the chance of traveling. I’ve met a lot of great names. But I’m really proud to say that I’m involved in this project.”

Wynter, who has lived in South Florida since 1993, has become the go-to person at the consulate. As information director, she mainly gathers and disseminates information. When people need help, they go to her. She also plans events, including church services, prime minister visits, Jamaica’s Independence Day every year and events that “share Jamaican heritage and culture with other nationalities.”

“I’m people-friendly and I think people trust me when it comes to information,” she says. “They know that I’ll help them as much as I can. And if I don’t know the information myself, I’ll help them find it.”

Wynter says she enjoys every aspect of her job, from the research to communicating with the media.

“As soon as I got into it, I loved it,” she says. “It’s important to enjoy your job. There must be one aspect of your job that you enjoy and you should focus on that. Everyone has days when they don’t want to go to work, but there’s no such time for that.”

Jay Rokeach

While we hear Jay Rokeach more than we hear of him, his voice has been synonymous with the University of Miami Hurricanes and other teams.

Rokeach added hockey to his list of sports last year when he was offered the position of public address announcer for the Florida Panthers.

“I feel fortunate that a new sport came along for me and that I was given the opportunity to announce hockey,” he says. “It’s been great, especially when you take into account that my first season with the team included their qualification for the NHL playoffs.”

The Brooklyn-born public address announcer has also voiced games for the Miami Dolphins, Miami Marlins and several local high school teams and works at events featuring big-name athletes like Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning. While he refers to himself as a “major sports fan,” in general, baseball has always been his passion.

“Growing up in Brooklyn, I liked the Los Angeles Dodgers,” he said. “Baseball and the Dodgers have always been something I rooted for.”

At an early age, Rokeach says, he knew he would never be a professional athlete, but he was always involved in sports in some capacity.

In high school, he worked as the basketball team’s student manager. And during his freshman year at the University of Miami, from 1968-69, he booked his first job as a public address announcer for the university’s baseball team.

Rokeach, who has announced every baseball season for the Canes since then, eventually got involved with the volleyball, football and basketball teams as well.

“I’ve been working with UM for so long that when I’m out I sometimes get recognized because of my voice,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m a celebrity, but Canes fans especially have come up to me and said, ‘I’ve been listening to you forever. It’s great hearing your voice at the games.’ It’s always nice to be recognized for your work.”

Ana Maria Blanco, 55, who has been going to games since the ’90s, is one of his fans. “It’s great to hear his voice when you go to a Canes baseball game,” she says. “My nephew associates Jay’s voice with UM.”

He also became the first public address announcer for the Florida Marlins (now the Miami Marlins) in 1993 at the start of the franchise. The team played its first game against the Dodgers, which was “surreal” for Rokeach.

He worked with the Marlins until 1997, including the Marlins’ first World Series championship.

“That World Series was the most amazing sports event that I’ve been involved with,” he says. “To experience announcing games one, two, six and seven of a World Series in your home park in front of 70-plus thousand people was an amazing thing, especially when no one expected them to accomplish this so early in their history.”

Although Rokeach has always focused on sports, his outlook works off the field.

“I just always felt that announcing was something I could do and that I could add some excitement to an event,” he says. “I’m not vanilla in my style. I like to have fun behind the microphone. It’s important to have fun with whatever you’re doing.”