When it comes to teaching its employees good manners, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is keeping it all in the family.
The PLCB recently awarded a $173,000 contract to Solutions 21, a West End consulting firm whose president is married to the PLCB's Western Pennsylvania regional manager. The contract prompted demands for an explanation from two state senators despite assurances from an PLCB spokesman that the bidding process was entirely above board.
Buddy Hobart, president of Solutions 21, which is located at 152 Wabash Ave. in the city's West End neighborhood, is married to Susanne Hobart, the Western Pennsylvania regional manager for the state store system, the PLCB spokesman confirmed after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette received an anonymous tip about the relationship.
Neither Mr. Hobart nor Mrs. Hobart returned calls for comment, but Mrs. Hobart "had no role in the procurement process," said Nick Hays, a spokesman for the PLCB. Five companies bid on the contract, he added, with the lowest submitted by Solutions 21, whose Web site describes it as "a national organizational and strategic consulting firm providing business advisory solutions in a rapidly evolving marketplace."
The Liquor Control Board was aware of Mrs. Hobart's relationship to the consulting firm when it unanimously approved the contract earlier this year, Mr. Hays said.
As one of three statewide regional managers, Mrs. Hobart will sit in on training sessions conducted by representatives of her husband's company, Mr. Hays acknowledged, but so will the system's other two regional managers, 29 district managers and 620 store managers.
They will then work with the state store system's approximately 3,000 employees to improve courtesy, friendliness and knowledge about the store's wines and spirits.
"The agency is under a mandate from Gov. [Ed] Rendell to operate the store system like a business rather than a government agency, and our goal is to offer the same level of customer service that you get at a really good specialty retailer," said Mr. Hays.
Reaction to the contract from the PLCB's critics was swift and sharp.
"It's business as usual," said state Sen. Rob Wonderling, R-Montgomery County, who unsuccessfully pushed legislation last session to privatize the state store system.
"This latest contract is an example why it's not fitting that this activity remains under public control," he said, adding he was planning to reintroduce his privatization bill again this session.
"As long as the public remains quiet on the notion that state stores are OK and sweetheart deals are OK for employees, nothing will get done."
State Sens. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and John Eichelberger, Jr., R-Blair, wrote to the PLCB's chairman yesterday saying they were "troubled with this apparently imprudent expenditure" at a time when the state faces budget deficits "of historic magnitude," demanding a review and an explanation of how the contract was rewarded.
While employees will be trained to greet patrons upon arrival and thank them upon departure, "such elementary skills of etiquette should be prerequisite for any candidate for a customer service position within your stores," they said in their letter to Patrick J. Stapleton, who chairs the PLCB's three-member board.
Such criticism was to be expected from longtime critics of the PLCB, countered Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Mr. Rendell. "The LCB decided their retail staff needed some training to ensure courteous service," he said. "If the LCB were to find a cure for cancer they would find a reason to criticize it."
Mr. Rendell, when asked about the customer service training contract at a news conference, said it was the first he'd heard of it -- and of the relationship between the consulting firm's president and an PLCB manager. "If it's true, it's something that should be corrected," Mr. Rendell said.
But the governor made that comment before he had all the information about the contract, Mr. Ardo said.
"He is not calling for the contract to be rebid," said Mr. Ardo. "He answered instinctively [because] the way the question was asked it seemed there might be a problem, but once the details unfolded it was clear there is no problem."
The "good manners" project won't be wasteful, Mr. Hays added, noting that customer surveys conducted recently by the PLCB have yielded "a level of satisfaction that varies widely."
Focusing on such fundamentals as customer interaction will provide store employees with a critical sales tool that could lead, ultimately, to increased revenue, Mr. Hays said.
"We want to get to the point where everyone can talk to customers with some confidence" about the store's products, he said.
"At the end of the day that one-on-one interaction by that store staffer is more important than anything else we do."
An unscientific survey of two state stores yesterday yielded no evidence, however, of bad manners from any employees.
At the Premium Collection Store at the Eastside shopping complex, which straddles East Liberty and Shadyside, a staffer named Jordan conversed knowledgeably and pleasantly about French dessert wines, while at a regular state store at the Penn Hills Center shopping plaza, another employee courteously answered repeated questions about the store's inventory.
When pressed for advice about which Beaujolais represented the best bargain, however, he shrugged.
"I don't have a clue, ma'am. I don't drink French wines."
But he was smiling when he said it.
Correction/clarification (published March 10, 2009) -- The last name of PLCB spokeman Nick Hays was misspelled in the original version of this story. Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1949.