Pursuing Your Passions
Discover how to transform a passion into your dream job.
Branded Group VP of Development, Kiira Belonzi, shares her journey as co-founder of Branded Group and the various hats she wore during its early years that led her to her dream job. Her passion to teach led her to developing and delivering best-in-class training programs for our team, resulting in our 96% employee retention rate.
“I feel really strongly about everyone in our company being leaders, not bosses.”
Kiira Belonzi is the Vice President of Business Development and co-founder of Branded Group. Her expertise in business development, facilities management, construction, and business operations has contributed to Branded Group’s growth to nearly 100 employees.
Kiira is responsible for the development and delivery of internal skills-based educational programs for new and existing team members. These programs include thorough needs assessments to determine skill levels, hands-on training for in-house applications, detailed documentation for business processes, and ongoing evaluation to monitor progress. Additionally, she develops comprehensive management training curriculum to assist employees on a leadership career path.
Kiira has more than a decade of facility maintenance and management experience and has held roles in operations and business development, which have led to significant account and revenue growth.
“As women, we need to speak up sooner, to have faith in our own abilities, and to push harder for what we want.”
Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group. Welcome to the #BeBetter Podcast. To me, our company’s mantra to “Be Better” is more than a tagline; it’s a culture that permeates our organization, propelling our team to Be Better to each other, our customers and our communities as well as to ourselves. Each week on the #BeBetter podcast, I interview leaders who authentically exemplify how they are being better in their professional and personal lives.
Today’s podcast is dedicated to Connex, (formerly PRSM), the leading membership organization since 1995 for facility managers and supplier professionals. Connex provides a variety of informative resources to industry professionals including educational events, discussion forums, and training programs. Learn more about how you can join at https://www.connexfm.com/.
Michael Kurland (00:02):
Alright, guys, welcome to another edition of the BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland and I’m very excited today. We’re speaking with longtime friend, longtime business partner, Kiira Belonzi. So excited to have you on the show. Thank you for being here. We’ve known each other forever. Why don’t you do the audience, the pleasure of introducing yourself and who you are?
Kiira Belonzi (00:27):
Sure, absolutely. My name is Kiira Belonzi. Like Mike said I am the VP of Development and Co-Founder here at Branded Group. Just a little short background. My career in facilities started back in 2008, not even knowing what facilities management was. I dove in head first. Took every opportunity I could right up to the one when Mike said, do you want to move to California and open a company? I said, no because I thought he was kidding. Then I realized that he wasn’t kidding. I said a hundred percent – totally on board. So really it’s been an amazing ride. I couldn’t be more grateful to be a part of this journey and here with him on the podcast today. That’s just a little bit about me and my background and we’ll probably dive into more I’m sure as we go on.
Michael Kurland (01:22):
Absolutely. So I was excited to get you on, as you said, you’re the Co-Founder. You were the only person that had the chutzpah to take the leap with me and move to California across the country and start this crazy journey called Branded Group. So thank you for that. Because over six years later, we’re wildly successful. I think I would say beyond anywhere I ever expected to be at least at this point. I hope you agree with that. I think we both done a good job of being better. You know, we’ve had similar stories when we left New York and I’m on pace to catch up with you on the personal life as well. Now that we’re here. Super cool. You know, you just got married, had a baby and congratulations on both of those things and life has changed a lot in the last six years, but I know we did your introduction. But let’s get a little more into that. What do you do and why do you do it?
Kiira Belonzi (02:22):
What I do now is actually I manage the hiring and the training and the development at Branded Group. I really love that part of the world of Branded Group, because I feel like it lends itself to our really strong retention rate. I think when people get in the door and they learn early what we’re about and how to do their jobs properly, they want to stick around and they want to be a part of this. So it’s really ingrained in our culture to have a really good training program, of course. With everything going on in the world this current year as well as me having been on maternity leave at the beginning of the year, I haven’t had a new hire class in a while and I’ve shifted a lot of my focus to trying to focus on some leadership development and mentoring our managers through these crazy times because it just has been a little bit crazy.
Kiira Belonzi (03:15):
Some of that leadership development and mentoring have really fallen on my plate and I love that as well. I feel really strongly about everyone in our company, being leaders, not bosses and really taking a coaching role with our employees. I like to focus on that. I’ve worn pretty much every hat in the past six years, but this now is what I get to focus on. It’s really where my passion lies. So that’s what I do and the why I do it. I like to think I’m good at it. That’s why I was put into that role, in that position. But I guess part of my personality is I like taking care of people, so to speak, right? With being able to work with all of our employees closely and help them when they need a little boost, maybe a process, a procedure, they need a little help with. That’s really what I just love to do. So that’s why I stick to this role.
Michael Kurland (04:18):
I can attest everything you just said, wearing every hat in the company. I mean, you’ve done sales, you’ve done operations. You did everything that needed to be done when it needed to be done over the course of the last six years. But I can say when you moved into your current role you’ve just flourished. That I can say the fact that we do have a 96% retention rate at Branded Group is 99.9% on you. You know, you bring these people in, you train them and in your training, it’s not even here’s how you do job A and here’s what you do ABCD. It’s also here’s the culture, here’s how you get involved in the culture. Here’s how you get involved here. This is how you can also be successful.
Michael Kurland (05:05):
So talk a little bit more about that. I remember when we first met, when we were back at the old place and you would tell me, you know, you’ve always thought you wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t in the cards for you. But this is where you’ve been able to take that role of being a teacher and that role of putting process together and “mama bear-ing” the entire office. Then it’s just been so successful. Like, we just said, 96% retention rate. So talk to me about how did you develop this? How’s it gotten to where it is now? Why do you think it’s so successful?
Kiira Belonzi (05:42):
I think that it’s when we started, it was just running gun, right? That we were startups. So it was everyone does every day, the good old days, I guess we could call it that. I mean, they were fantastic, but they were crazy. Right? Some of our staff that that we still have to this day and they’ve risen to leadership roles now, they were some of our first coordinators and they were thrown to the wolves and they did an amazing job with it. But seeing that, seeing them thrown into the wolves and seeing them kind of struggle and stumble over themselves while they learned was something that like I said, it, it made them really strong, but it was something that I wanted to fix for the future. So I think that was really where the idea of we need a focus on training. We need to focus on implementing everything, having strong communication when we roll out anything new. That’s where this kind of training department came from. I did always want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a kindergarten or second grade teacher. I just love kids. It turned out that I lived in New York at the time and you had to have your Master’s degree. I know some people love school, but that wasn’t for me, that wasn’t my path. So I got my associates.
Michael Kurland (06:56):
Totally agree. I was at one point wanting to be a general manager of a baseball team. They were like, you need a law degree. I bought the book to study for the LSATs right after I graduated college. I was like, nope, not doing it. I’m going to find a job. Sorry, keep going.
Kiira Belonzi (07:12):
I totally get it. I think that that life experience lends itself to some people better than college. So I got my associates, obviously couldn’t go teach formal education without getting that further education myself. So I put it on the back burner. Never really thought about it again. I dove into life and started working different jobs, landed in this world. What’s really cool is now I got good at doing and now I get to teach. So it’s really cool for me to be able to teach what I actually really enjoy and feel like I was good at as a coordinator, as a project manager. Being able to work with them side by side is, is just fulfilling something that I always wanted to do. It just happens to be with adults and in facilities, as opposed to second graders with like addition.
Michael Kurland (08:02):
Well thank you for not going and getting your Master’s and doing this because you have become, Branded Group college professor Belonzi all the way up to 401 or whatever it goes after that. What do you think differentiates us? Because I think that’s what different. One of the big things that differentiates Branded Group from our competitors is that we have you, and we have the fact that you train these people and get them to buy in so quickly right off the bat. The old place it was burn and turn. It was you’re hired at $18 an hour here. Here’s the day of how to do the job from A to B. Oh, day two, answer the phone, go, go. That’s where I think we spun, but what makes us do it better? What makes you, drives you to do it and what you think makes you different in teaching that, because this is not a fun job.
Kiira Belonzi (09:01):
Well I think it is a fun job, so maybe that’s what’s different about it. I think that you really have to have a passion for teaching. If you’re going to be…
Michael Kurland (09:08):
Sorry, your job is fun. I think the operational job teaching kids can be difficult in general.
Kiira Belonzi (09:16):
Yes. I think a big difference stems from the people that we bring on board. So when we’re hiring, it really starts from ground zero when we’re hiring, we look for people and I listened to keywords in interviews. Like “I like people pleasing. I like taking care of, I love customer service. I like problem solving.” When you get people with those innate qualities, then training the trades and the role is a little bit easier because they already have that caring side and you have to care about your job if you’re going to your customer, if you’re going to do a good job in this role. So I think it really starts there. Then from there,
Michael Kurland (10:00):
So you’d say you’ve honed in your hiring process over the last
Kiira Belonzi (10:04):
Oh my gosh. Yes. Big time.
Michael Kurland (10:07):
Remember some of the first ones that we hired in some of the first interviews we did. So I’m glad,
Kiira Belonzi (10:12):
A long way, a long way. That gut feeling has really flourished. But then I guess beyond that to more answer your question of what makes me good at it. I think it’s really digging in and understanding people and understanding where they are and knowing not everyone’s going to get trained to the same. So what level are they at, you’re reading their face, reading their questions? Are they absorbing this or is there a blank stare? Are they not getting it and training to their level? Which can be tricky when you’re training a few people at the same time. But if you can read the room or you can read your employee and you can train to their level and slow down or speed up, not only is it going to feel a little bit customized to them, they’re going to retain it better. You’re also not going to blow past anything that’s really important for them to know. I guess that I think is probably one of the big differentiators is just that understanding of people and not to get really long winded, but we do a StrengthsFinder assessment during their very first few days of being hired. So understanding their strengths and how to build on those and play to those really helps in the teaching. People learn differently and just understanding that,
Michael Kurland (11:34):
I think that we started that, what about three year, two or three years ago, having them take the StrengthFinders and I think even for you, it was a learning experience to what to do with those strengths. Now, however many years later, you’ve been able to really hone in that as well, to be a part of how your selection. So what I’m hearing from you is that like the selection process is something that you’ve refined and honed in on. Now that your selection process is so good, you can really get the right people in the place to do the job, and then it makes training them easier, right?
Michael Kurland (12:22):
Then the other thing I heard is between the three of us owners, you’ve got Jon who’s very non-emotional and linear, just get it, get it done. I’m kind of in the middle of emotion and get it done. You’re just very empathetic. So I think we balance each other out very well. I think that empathy that you have helps to understand the people that you are training and getting them to, like you said, slow up if they’re not moving it along as fast or speed up if they’re getting it really quickly. I’m glad that you figured all that stuff out and you know, it’s definitely a benefit to both of us. So let’s stop talking about work a little bit and let’s talk about what are you curious about right now Kiira.
Kiira Belonzi (13:02):
Curious. I haven’t been bored during quarantine at all. A lot of people are saying “I’m bored.” I’m picking up a new language. I have a four month old, so definitely not bored. But I am really using this time to try to do a little personal development and everything that’s going on in the world. There’s been a lot of talk about the stock market’s like, boom, boom, boom. It’s crazy right now. It’s something that I’ve never been super interested in. So I’ve been really trying to focus on more of the real estate investing world. I’m learning a lot more about that. I did residential property management when I was about 18, as an assistant in an office. I think that that lent itself well to working in facilities because there’s a lot of crossover between the commercial and residential. It’s different, but similarities.
Kiira Belonzi (13:56):
So I’m interested in curious about that residential world again, about rental properties and flipping. I’ve been reading a lot of books on that. My husband’s been reading them with me, which has been fun thing for us to do together throughout all this quarantine stuff. So I would say that’s what I’ve been focusing on. I’ve started listening to more podcasts, funny that I’m on one now. There’s one called the Rental Rookie, which has been fun to listen to, and just get other perspectives on real estate investing in general.
Michael Kurland (14:29):
Now you and your husband have a few investment properties between the two of you, correct?
Yes. I do.
So what have you found, what new things have you found? Because I too have a few investment properties and rentals and I find if you get the right management company in place, I feel like they can be fun and easy. But if you have the wrong, they can also be challenging. So what have you found through this pandemic or any new advice for people with investment properties out there?
Kiira Belonzi (15:02):
I would say my biggest piece of advice is ideally don’t have a tenant move out during a pandemic because finding a new one is not easy. We had our own homes that became rental properties. If you’re starting off in investing that I feel like that was a really great way for us to start acquiring properties. So instead of selling a house to buy a new one to buy your forever home or whatnot, can that
Kiira Belonzi (15:35):
How it can start our house, be an investment and then, still move on to a new one. That’s how you get your first one and get even maybe your second one. I read, which I found interesting, and it goes a little bit against your portfolio of investing that you have, but I had read that single family homes happened to be one of the easiest to manage and that’s currently what we have. I had always pictured myself getting into duplexes, quadplexes small, smaller multitenant spaces. So reading that, I was like maybe I’m going to change my perspective a little bit. Something maybe I want to talk to you more about it at some point. So that was interesting to me because I thought I’ll have some multi tenant spaces. I’ll do some flips. Now through all of what I’ve been reading, I may change my approach a little bit.
Michael Kurland (16:35):
You know, when we first moved out here, my retirement plan was to have a flipping company, but that is just so saturated now that it’s not even something that I even think about anymore, but I did the complete opposite. I sold my home and I invested in multi-unit properties in different parts of the country. So I have never even seen the properties that I own, but cool. It’s definitely a hundred percent, a 180 from, from what you’re doing, but I’ve found that, like I said, if you have the right management company in place, then it can create that, I believe they call it passive income. Right? Rich dad, poor dad, passive income. Are you reading that? Have you read that?
Kiira Belonzi (17:26):
I have read that a while ago, because we did in the Branded Group book club on that. That’s when I read that.
Did you like it?
I did. I really did.
Michael Kurland (17:36):
That’s like the, I feel like that’s the starter book for anyone that wants to get into investments and things of that nature. So I don’t know how this became a real estate podcast. So let’s see what motivates you to be better?
Kiira Belonzi (17:54):
Well, like I said, that whole, people pleasing side of me, I really like that sense of accomplishment with what I do every day, helping the clients, helping our team. So that motivates me on, I’d say a day by day basis in my current role. Just taking care of people, I love that I’m taking care of my family. You know, I really want to be better for them be better. You know, now I have a little girl who’s going to grow up and hopefully emulate what I’m doing and hopefully, see a successful woman that she wants to follow growing up.
Michael Kurland (18:37):
I love that. You just said that too. Let me pause you for a second. You’re a very well respected woman in our industry and you have received awards for being a woman in the industry doing your thing. So I have to think that’s some sort of a motivation for you, right? To just be a strong boss woman.
Kiira Belonzi (19:00):
It definitely is. You see a lot about women in business and glass ceilings and the differentials between being a woman or a man in leadership roles. I think that there are hindrances and there’s a lot of work to do there, but I also think that we’ve come a very long way. If you just barrel through, there is something to be said for that as well. That’s the approach I’ve always taken. I’m going to create my own destiny. I’ve done that and I’ve followed the right opportunities to put myself in those positions and maybe not everyone has those opportunities, but I’d like to just be able to create them for more people, you know?
Michael Kurland (19:52):
Well, let’s talk about what are some of the hindrances that you’ve run into? I mean, we don’t have to get super specific, but what are the things that you’ve run into along the way? So you can get an idea.
Kiira Belonzi (20:03):
What’s funny is I’ve read books on women in leadership and things like that. What’s funny is most hindrances for women in business are self-induced. People don’t really want to talk about that or hear about that, but women tend to worry more about everything else around them than they do themselves. They put themselves on the back burner and that can be a problem when it comes to negotiating. That can be a problem when it comes to balancing family and work. So if we become more and more aware of these things, then we can combat them. Most women are not paid the same as men. Most women don’t ask for as much as a man. What they don’t see themselves, women, their nature is to prove themselves and then ask for the reward or the salary increase or whatever it might be.
Kiira Belonzi (21:02):
Whereas a man will quote unquote like fake it till you make it. He’ll speak about what he will do, whereas a woman speaks about what she has done. So they get to these levels of salaries at different times because the man is getting paid for what he will accomplish, whereas the woman’s getting paid for what she’s already accomplished. If we learn as women to speak up sooner, to have faith in our own abilities and to push harder for what we want, we won’t be on the same level. That’s been really eye-opening for me for sure. Is that from “Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg. It’s a really, really great book and it goes into that. There was a Harvard study where the exact same story about a leader’s behavior was told.
Kiira Belonzi (21:56):
It was like Harry and Harriet, right? It was a man and a female and a woman’s name and the exact same actions were taken. Then they did a survey. Would you want to be an employee of, or a colleague of Harry, would you want to be an employee or a colleague of Harriet? There was an overwhelming, positive response for the man and a very negative response for the woman because the woman came off as bossy and pushy and not someone that people would want to work with. Literally the exact word for word behaviors as the man, which was looked at as a respected traits. So I mean, it goes into all kinds of crazy different…
Michael Kurland (22:35):
There’s still, I mean, there’s still inequality in the workforce.
Kiira Belonzi (22:40):
A hundred percent.
Michael Kurland (22:44):
I’m not trying to make you some women’s champion, what makes some quality champion here, but how can we be better in our generation coming up to try and combat that? I think we do a good job at Branded Group, but in general, with the workforce, what do you think we can do to be better?
Kiira Belonzi (23:04):
I think that awareness is huge. That’s really one of the biggest things. That comes with any sort of inequality, which we’re seeing so much civil unrest right now. The awareness behind it is huge because if people are aware, then they can’t ignore it. We have done a great job at Branded Group. You know, we have a lot of women in managerial roles and they do a phenomenal job. I don’t really have an easy answer. I think if there was an answer, it wouldn’t be happening anymore. But education maybe educating, having classes in colleges about more women focused classes in colleges. So that way younger women are getting this empowerment ingrained in them from an earlier age. There’s little things like that that could potentially start to propel.
Michael Kurland (23:58):
I think you just nailed it. I think awareness, I mean, not that I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, but the few facts that you just presented to me, I had, I mean, I had no idea. Right. So as long as it’s talked about a little bit more, I think we can help that problem to be resolved or moving forward. Right. So how are you being better professionally?
Kiira Belonzi (24:29):
So this time, like I mentioned is a little crazy. A lot of what my focus was on was our team and our team is just running and gunning with the current work that they have. But we don’t even have our whole team with us right now, unfortunately. So my role has changed significantly and I’m really spending that time listening to webinars, revamping some processes and procedures trying to revamp things like our review processes and seeing how as a company, we could be better with little things. Our company is really great about doing a survey, an employee survey every year. We take a lot of information from that and it’s overwhelmingly positive, which is really humbling, but it also always shines a little bit of light on opportunities for us to grow as a company. So I’m looking at some of those things. I’m a big one, has communication, how can we streamline some of our communication as you grow and grow and you get bigger and you get different departments and different teams. How do we make sure all of our messaging is consistent? So just looking at some of that stuff.
Michael Kurland (25:41):
I definitely agree with that. As we’ve grown bigger, I mean, I’m sure you could comment on this, but I’d appreciate if you didn’t, but my communication, just the streamlining of it, you know, when we first started, we had two, five, 12, 20 employees and I would just go direct to that employee. Now when we’re at 85 and I’m still going direct to the employee, and then you stop doing that, you’re messing up the flow of communication. So I think I’ve done a good job though, in the last a year of backing off the direct communication and following the proper channels. But anyway, keep going with what you’re saying.
Kiira Belonzi (26:17):
I would definitely agree. When you’re small, it’s easy. You can say something out loud and everyone hears it and everyone knows what’s up. Or the grape vine is really short. But as we get bigger, if we change something or we are going to do something differently and we tell the person that needs to know it, great. They get it and they’re gonna run with it, but does everyone else know it? Are they all going to behave the same way? Is that message going to be consistent? So, I think that we do a good job with our meetings. We don’t do the over meeting problem, but I think that we have enough meetings with the right people to relay the right information. Then I’ll sometimes have side meetings and say this is the information we need to relay, but this is how I want to see it discussed with your team and with your people. So where one person might say it one way another, another if it’s really important, let’s talk about how you’re going to execute that message.
Michael Kurland (27:18):
Totally agree. Communication is key. Even in relationships, right? Like work is a relationship. All the people that you deal with at work is relationship, you know, with your spouse or your partner, also communication is key, but you see me with your friends, I may be feeling some sort of way and if I’m not communicating that to my body or my fiancé, they may not know I’m feeling that way. I have this great saying that I am not Kreskin. I am not a mind reader. So if you’re feeling some sort of way and you don’t communicate it to me. How do I know? Right. You can’t get better.
Kiira Belonzi (27:54):
Well, that reminds me of when we came out here. I mean, we’ve always had the #BeBetter motto. We’ve got all that, but we, you and I had a motto with each other, which was, “say it out loud.” We haven’t talked about that in a while, but I remember thinking that, you know, looking back at that it was so effective because you’re starting a company things are crazy. If you don’t actually say it out loud and you don’t express what you’re feeling or what you need or what your expectations might be, then there’s miscommunication, hard feelings, rough days. I think that was just such a good thing to live by was “say it out loud.”
Michael Kurland (28:39):
I agree. I actually thought about that the other day too. So say it out loud. Maybe we should bring that one back. We might not want to hear it though. So I really appreciate you coming on here. This has been great. I have the same question that I ask all of my guests for the last question. So are you ready? What do you consider yourself to be an expert at? What piece of advice would you give to our listeners on how to become an expert at that thing as well?
Kiira Belonzi (29:10):
Gosh, expert at I’m going to go back to the reading people, the understanding people. I think I’m very good at that. It’s benefited me in lots of ways because it helps me approach situations differently and what not. So I would say I am really good at that. I think the way to do that, and this you’re going to laugh at this one, but it’s to listen, right? I talk a lot. But my New Year’s every year is listen more. But if you listen and you really hear what people are saying or why they’re behaving the way they are, or, or what not, and you put yourself in their shoes and you try to understand them, then you can approach things in a way that people walk away happy and you get what you need and what they need. You find those happy grounds and happy mediums. I would say that that would be something that I pride myself in listening,
Michael Kurland (30:17):
Reading, reading people, and listening more. That’s good. That’s good advice. That’s good advice. Well, great. Kiira, I really appreciate you coming on. It’s been great catching up with you. Love to have you back and talk about the good old days a lot more. I don’t know if the audience wants to hear that, but me and you can at least chop it up. So if people out there that are listening want to get a hold of you, what’s the way they can do that.
Kiira Belonzi (30:46):
Email is great. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. But I’m on LinkedIn, so you’ve definitely get me on LinkedIn. My email is there as well. I’d love to hear from anyone with questions, thoughts, things that we want to elaborate more on. I love conversation.
Michael Kurland (31:10):
Great. Well, thank you, Kiira and thank you everyone for listening. Have a wonderful rest of your day and we’ll see you next time.
I’d like to take a minute to thank you, our valued listeners. My intention is for this podcast to inspire you, in some way, to be better. Change starts from within and radiates outward. Therefore, start with being better to yourself and only then will you recognize how to be better others and your community. Thank you for joining us today! If you want to learn more about Branded Group, then visit us at www.branded-group.com. From our website you can follow us on social media. Also, always feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.