Once co-workers, now a network of friendships

Laid-off colleagues formed a lifeline to get them through troubled times.

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Lou Ann Soika gets a hug from former colleague Bob Locilento during a recent reunion of laid-off workers. Despite losing their jobs 10 years ago, the former co-workers remained connected.

A fellowship of the unemployed held a party Friday night - a lovely evening for a reunion of laid-off colleagues on a deck top in Center City, with a jazz trio providing the mellow for toasts, hugs, and high-fives.

Ten years ago, they and 300 of their colleagues lost their jobs when their company, the original NovaCare in King of Prussia, collapsed with stunning swiftness after 14 years of rapid growth.

Yet these people remained connected, a testimony to the strength of the workplace family, with its emotional ties born of long hours, exhilarating growth and tough times.

Workplace bonds such as theirs are being torn apart daily, as companies slash whole divisions. Yet, if those ties survive, they can provide more than a chance to reminisce about the good old days.

They become emotional umbilical cords - lifelines to new jobs, new identities and new feelings of self-worth - especially important in today's rough job market.

"It looks ugly out there," said one of the party-goers, now worried about losing his third job in 10 years.

As happy as he was to lift a drink on a balmy spring evening, he said he also hoped his network of friendships, renewed at that party, would help him in troubled times ahead.

When the rooftop partygoers were fired 10 years ago, they clung to each other, refugees from a company they loved so much that they called themselves a cult.

Even though their company still exists today in name - NovaCare Rehabilitation - it is not their NovaCare. The ownership is different, the corporate structure is gone, the name sold with it.

Since 1999, many landed and lost several jobs - the dot.com boom and bust of 2000 nabbed some; so did the economic fallout after 9/11.

Through it all, they've been bulwarks for one another - hiring, recommending and making introductions. Lately, they've been helped by LinkedIn, the online version of getting together for happy hour.

Whether it is online or at the local tavern, the importance of getting together hasn't changed - especially not in this job market.

"It's all about your network," said Gerry Geckle, an executive vice president at Wyeth and one who lost her job at NovaCare in 1999. "You have to maintain your relationships while you are employed and navigate them when you are not."

Each day, employment counselors preach the value of networking to find jobs in today's tough economy. It has a greasy grip-and-grin feel to it, except when grounded in genuine affection and respect.

That's how it was when NovaCare - then known as InSpeech Inc. - began in 1985.

A group of investors bought a speech therapy company that provided services for nursing home residents. Related acquisitions followed quickly. In 1989, the company became NovaCare, a famous Philadelphia business name.

"We built the company together," said Tim Foster, NovaCare's former chief executive and now the head of a business that operates technical schools. "As a result, the relationships were forged in a very intense environment."

At its height, NovaCare reported $1.9 billion in revenues and employed 50,000 nationwide.

In 1999, a change in Medicare reimbursement policies abruptly shut off the growth. Within months, NovaCare's businesses had to be sold to pay off debts. Even the NovaCare name was sold.

"The [nursing home therapy] business went from being the cash engine of the company to losing money with a stroke of the pen," recalled Kathy Kehoe, whose present employer, Tom Bonney, hosted the party at his company, CMF Associates.

Most of NovaCare's front-line employees found jobs with the acquiring companies, but, as is typical, headquarters staff became extraneous. In the end, a handful remained to mop up, among them Ron Healy, the chief financial officer.

"We had a great, great, team," Healy said. "One of the best management teams I worked with - dedicated, smart. It was hard to say goodbye."

When the company folded, the NovaCultists spread into the Philadelphia job market, bringing each other along - and they had every opportunity to do so, because many became top executives in their new companies.

Geckle, for example, brought some of her NovaCare associates to Wyeth, where she now heads human resources. Geckle would say nothing about Pfizer Inc.'s acquisition of Wyeth, but some of the Wyeth people at the reunion were on edge.

"Right now our jobs are in limbo," said one of them, who didn't want her name used because she fears for her job.

"A lot of the people here know my qualifications," she said. "I consider most of the people here my friends."

Same with Steve Hallett, who was among the 60 people attending the party Friday.

Hallett is a director of technical support for human resources at Rohm & Haas, now a division of Dow Chemical Co. Dow says there will be layoffs, and Rohm could be impacted.

"There's a lot of uncertainty now," said Hallett. "In this environment, everyone's going through it."


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Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.