Design Specialists: Thinking Outside the Box to Better Design Inside the Box

By Tami S. Scott

When you first walk inside Design Specialists—a Syracuse-based independent design firm established in 1988— expect to be greeted by at least one of three small dogs with big personalities. Buck, Addie, and Gretta are experts at creating smiles and welcoming guests.

Much like the business’s founder and president, Krista Taskey.

Not only does Taskey have a knack for interior design, but she also has a gift for making people feel at home and building lasting connections. So, it’s only logical that, based on those two attributes alone, her 35-plus-year career has climbed to what it is today, where 90% of her business is repeat or referrals.

“We started out as an interior design firm specializing in commercial, fee-based work, but I also sold product, such as furniture, window treatments, artwork and accessories. We realized that our clients were thrilled to have a single source for their design and procurement,” she said. “Gradually, the procurement part of the business just grew and grew, [and] now we have two businesses here—the interior design business and a window treatment business.”

The window treatment business started about 15 years ago.

“We received a call from a local general contractor who noticed that we are a certified WBE business in NYS and City of Syracuse and asked if we would consider submitting a bid for blinds for a dormitory project that they were bidding on,” Taskey said. “At that time, we had never bid window treatments to any contractors.”

The contractor convinced Taskey to try—and they won the project! Today, at any given time, two to four employees dedicate their time bidding and project managing work in the window treatment side of the business.

The concept of “thinking outside the box to better design inside the box” is the way of life at Design Specialists. “I don’t ever say no to a customer,” Taskey said. She explained that if a potential client asks for a specific service or product that they haven’t yet done, she will research the request before responding either way.

The interiors library at Design Specialists is most likely the largest commercial library in all of Central New York. It consists of samples for carpet, tile, specialty flooring, wallcoverings, paints and fabrics for upholsteries and window treatments, and other specialty product.

“One of the things that’s important about our library is that we can typically design pretty fast. Probably 99% of what we need to design a space, is right here at our office,” Taskey said. “If we need larger samples of specific items and/or additional options, we simply reach out to our vendor reps who will then ship things directly to us.”


Currently, Design Specialists purchases product directly from more than 100 vendors. “We only team up with vendors that will support us and our clients when issues surface, which we all know that happens more than we like!” she said.

Taskey credited a large part of the business’s success to “our great staff and our liaisons with other businesses.” 

“Some of the partners we collaborate with take care of fabricating and installing soft window treatments, framing and hanging artwork, and other specialty services.  We have long standing relationships with these businesses,” she said.

In terms of the window treatment business, “we have our own installers, they are on our payroll, they are not subcontractors. This allows us to control the quality of the work and the scheduling. Our installation team, led by Dave Reid, is top notch! Dave always watches out for us while putting the customer first. We have received many compliments that are a testament to the entire team.”

When Taskey talks about her crew, the admiration and respect she feels toward them is palpable.

It’s all about trust

When Taskey moved her business from Rome, NY to Downtown Syracuse, her first office was located in an old firehouse, which is now the beloved Wolff’s Biergarten on Montgomery Street. She moved a second time before settling 13 years ago in her current location on Joy Road in East Syracuse.

“Part of the reason I bought this building is because it has a receiving area for the window treatments,” she said. “An 18-wheeler can just pull up with the product and we can get it unloaded directly into our warehouse. Once the product is checked in by our team, we can arrange installation with the general contractors and/or clients.” 

Design Specialists serves clients within a 3-hour radius, with the majority in Buffalo, Orchard Park, and Albany. Yet, Taskey says that her company is still kind of ‘under-the-radar.’

“Not a lot of people know about us,” she said. Those that do, however, keep coming back.

“Some of our clients are at a point where I send them a quote and they don’t even want to see the finishes or the colors anymore,” she said, paraphrasing one customer who told her that ‘in all these years, you’ve never disappointed me so just do what’s right.’ “There’s a trust factor. The longer you work for a client, you build that trust and they pretty much sign the check and send it to you.”

For instance, senior living properties and continuing care communities that have independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care are very familiar with the firm—and very satisfied.

“A lot of those clients, we do everything—finishes, lighting, furniture, window treatments—the whole soup to nuts,” she said. “At this point, really all of our business is referral or the same people over and over again—I don’t have to look for work anymore.”

Other clients include those in the healthcare, corporate, education, and hospitality markets. It’s noteworthy to mention that safety, accessibility, and ergonomics are always built into the designs.

Customer service

Imagine contacting a business that has a 24-hour callback/email policy, that doesn’t have voicemail but rather takes messages with handwritten notepads. You might ask why in this advanced technological age, but that’s how Design Specialists rolls — its relationship driven and aims to provide the best customer service for its clientele.

In fact, the DS staff knows where Taskey is, so if she’s on the road and a painter needs her guidance to move forward on a project, he can pick up his phone and call her cell. “In our business, accessibility for our clients and our contractors is really important.”

How it all started

Taskey’ s path to interior design first began by earning a degree from a community college in Ontario, Canada. Though she always felt this work came naturally to her, it was finding the right employers to teach her the industry ropes that really put her on the right path forward.

Taskey’s first job was with a dynamic interior designer in Williamsville, NY.  The move to this area found her working for a large architectural firm in Utica.  Then finally, in true Mary Tyler Moore fashion, she threw her hat in the air (figuratively speaking!) and decided to try to make it on her own.

What may surprise you is … “I never had a business plan,” she said. Rather, Taskey learned through trial and error. By making mistakes or doing it right, the business organically evolved.

When asked what her favorite part of interior design is, she said it’s making the client happy; hearing that we did a good job; hearing they’re thrilled with the results: “Servicing people,” she said. And while money is a motivator, it’s not what most attracts her to the world of design. Rather, the work is rewarding. “I think 99% of what we do here every day is positive.”

“The nursing home environment, where about 80% of our workload is, that’s even more important because for the people that live there, that is their home. I feel very blessed that I can make those spaces beautiful for the residents and the staff,” Taskey said.

The present and the future

When you walk inside the open space facility, there are three large portraits of Buck, Addie, and Gretta that adorn the left wall. The quarters are bright from the natural sun, and the walls are bedecked with bold, rich colors. Multiple work rooms are home to stacks of samples, fabrics, furniture, and artwork. And the comforting and stimulating smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen permeates the air. There’s no slowing down in sight at the DS office. 

As for Taskey’ s retirement, which she’s been asked about on occasion: Put your fears to rest, there’s no plan for that, either.

 “I still love what I do for work,” she said, “and as long as I still have that passion, I don’t see me retiring in the near future.”

For more information about Design Specialists, visit their website at or call 315.479.1551.

Rising Interest Rates and the Impact on Your Business

Kaitlyn H. Axenfeld, CPA/CFF, CFE, Dannible & McKee, LLP

As we move further from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a drastic hike in interest rates. Over the past fourteen months, the prime rate has increased by 5.00% (3.25% in 2022 to 8.25% as of May 2023). Today’s high rates are expected to stay, if not continue to increase, which means financing is more expensive, and projects are less affordable. Interest rates should be evaluated and considered in all aspects of your business – the cost of equipment, estimating and bidding, cashflows and backlog.

When considering financing or leasing machinery and equipment, it is imperative to look at the interest rate implicit in leasing and financing agreements and compare the cash flow in the short and long term for all available financing and purchasing options. The days of 0% interest rates are gone. Implicit and stated interest rates for equipment financing now typically range from 7% to 20%.

For example, a contract that requires a piece of equipment that costs $500,000, leased or financed over five years with an interest rate of 10%, would require cash flows for interest payments of approximately $42,000 in the first year. It would be approximately $137,000 over the five years. While the average savings account earns 0.39% APY. The $500,000 of cash in a savings account, with compounded interest over the same five years, would earn approximately $16,000 in interest income. The cost of financing the equipment is almost $120,000. It is crucial to evaluate these decisions and consider the best use of available resources and the impact on short- and long-term operations and goals.

When estimating and planning jobs, it is also important to consider borrowing requirements and the impact of interest. As an example, $1,000,000 over five years with an interest rate of 3.25% would result in a monthly payment of approximately $18,000 with a total interest expense of approximately $85,000. This same loan with a rate of 8.25% would result in a monthly payment of approximately $20,000 with a total interest expense of approximately $223,000. In a little over a year, the cost of financing $1,000,000 changed drastically, with an increased monthly payment and interest over the period increasing $138,000. This is important to consider when planning and estimating jobs. What is the expected timing of purchases and outlays compared to billing the customer? Is there an option to bill for significant upfront costs? What is the timing of incurring costs and subsequently receiving billings?  If cash flows are such that borrowings from a line of credit are unavoidable, interest expense would need to be considered into account to ensure coverage of capital outlays. Streamlining payments and billings will help ensure the project stays on track and decrease the chance of liens, delays and unnecessary interest and penalties.

Not only is the contractor affected by rising rates, but interest rates also impact the buying power of investors, businesses and property owners. It’s common to rely on short-term or long-term loans to pay for construction and improvement costs. Rising rates impact the availability and qualifications lenders use to evaluate financing. The overall scope of projects increases as costs increase, but the amount of funding may not. Over time, the number of new projects may start to decrease, and existing projects may be delayed due to higher financing costs. This could lead to increased competition as there are fewer available projects.

Rising rates have a significant impact on daily operations. To remain successful, contractors must ensure that projects are estimated using anticipated interest rates and that projects are profitable enough to cover any increased financing costs. With the uncertainty of continued rate increases, contractors have to re-evaluate their thoughts on financing, specifically cash flow stability as debt becomes more expensive and implement a cash management strategy to ensure the best use of resources during this time.

Dannible & McKee, LLP, is a public accounting firm with offices in Syracuse, Auburn, Binghamton and Schenectady, New York.  The firm has specialized in providing tax, audit, accounting and advisory services since its inception in 1978.  For more information on this topic, you may contact Kaitlyn at (315) 472-9127 or visit online at

Understanding Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rates

Steven Bell, Vice President, Underwriting & Sales

On May 15, 2023, the New York Compensation Rating Board (NYCIRB) filed with the Department of Financial Services, a 2.6% decrease in the overall loss cost level in New York State, to be effective on October 1, 2023. The proposed loss cost decrease was determined by NYCIRB applying their standard ratemaking methodology.

This marks the seventh consecutive year where NYCIRB has filed for a loss cost decrease. While insurance costs have been on the rise across most lines, Workers’ compensation loss costs have defied inflationary pressures. Since 2017, loss costs in NYS have decreased on average nearly -45%.


During the same time, the average weekly wage increased nearly +31.6%.

There are many factors that have been driving the rate decreases such as improved loss experience and development, lower loss frequency, lower loss severity, higher wage trend factors, modest growth in loss adjustment expenses, higher benefit levels, lower catastrophe and disaster premium, and modest industry differentials. While all these factors play a role, calculated future wage trends appear to have had the most significant impact on loss costs during the last seven years. Conceptually, if the entire potential cost of losses for NYS is $5 billion, then loss cost must be set to raise $5 billion in premium. In this example, if wages are expected to increase 5%, and losses remain the same, then loss costs must decrease to generate the same amount of premium.

Loss Costs, Rates and Premium
In New York State, workers’ compensation pricing begins with the creation of what is known as a loss cost. NYCIRB collects payroll and loss data divided into approximately 580 classes of businesses such as plumbers, electricians, and painters. The loss cost is created by determining the total losses and payroll for those in a similar class of business. The result is a loss cost, which is an average unit of cost that can be charged for each one hundred dollars of payroll exposure. Carriers in NYS then apply a loss cost multiplier to the loss cost to create their rate. The multiplier, generally greater than one, is based upon each carrier’s expenses and loss experience and covers the carrier’s expenses and profit. Workers’ compensation premium is then determined by multiplying the amount of payroll (divided by 100) for each class code/business type by the carrier’s rate.

There are many factors that drive your final premium. In addition to manual rates, the final cost you pay is affected by your experience modification, the size of your payroll, the construction premium adjustment program, the payroll limitation, scheduled rating and the carrier discount. The experience rating modification is designed to adjust the manual rate to better fit an individual employer’s loss experience compared to all other employers in their class. You may have seen a larger credit or debit on your renewal due to NYCIRB’s recent change to the methodology for determining your experience modification. The construction premium adjustment program (CPAP) develops a credit for those employers who pay higher hourly wages for construction operations. Its purpose is to address premium differences between high–wage and low–wage paying construction employers. In addition to the CPAP program, employers performing commercial construction are also eligible to apply a payroll limitation equivalent to the NYS average weekly. Schedule rating credits and debits along with carrier discounts are also applied in many cases but are subjective and applied by your carrier based on their assessment of your operation. The maximum schedule rating credit/debit is 5% and private carriers can also apply a premium discount, which generally ranges from 1-15% of premium based on premium size. NYSIF can apply discounts and differentials based on their assessment of each individual insured. Policies that perform poorly may be debited and employers who are performing better than average, such as employers in a NYSIF safety group, receive as much as a 30% upfront discount.

If Loss Costs are Down 45%, Why Aren’t My Premiums?

The likely answer to the question is a combination of many of the factors noted above. Given the yearly increases in other lines of insurance, you may not be looking hard at your workers’ compensation costs as your premium may not be increasing. This is human nature, as we tend to focus on those items that are increasing in cost. However, it is wise to periodically market your insurance. If your payrolls have not gone up significantly and all other factors are equal, then your workers’ compensation renewal may be a place where savings awaits you!

For more information on workers’ compensation, contact Lovell at 1-800-5 LOVELL or visit online


Latest NLRB Rule Restricts Language Employers Can Use in Employee Contracts

By Darby Peters and Abigayle Garrett

It is common for employers to have a contract such as a non-compete or severance agreement with an employee.  On February 21, 2023, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued a decision that restricts what an employer can put in severance agreements and other employer-employee contracts. This NLRB decision applies to both unionized and non-unionized workers, protecting employees’ rights to make public statements, communicate about the workplace, self-organize, and form unions if they wish to do so.

Although this decision can impact any contract an employer offers an employee, some of the contracts that will be under the most scrutiny include severance agreements, offer letters, non-compete agreements, non-solicitation agreements, and confidentiality agreements. Generally, the agreements require the employee to waive certain rights in exchange for employment or receiving a severance package. Employers use such agreements as useful tools to protect their companies. Employers often ask employees to agree to a non-disclosure or non-compete agreement when the employee could be privy to information that could harm the company if the information was shared with competitors, such as bidding techniques. Similarly, employers often offer severance agreements to terminated employees that contain broad liability releases, which attempt to waive the employee’s rights to sue the company in the future.

However, the February 21, 2023 decision by the NLRB limited the scope of rights an employer-employee contract can waive. Now, if an employer is not careful and the agreement language is too broad, the agreement will be a violation of the decision and will be void. Overly broad language that infringes on an employee’s rights is strictly prohibited, such as limiting an employee’s rights to make public statements or communicate with other current or former employees. Examples of such overly broad language may be a non-disparagement clause that prohibits employees from making statements that could disparage or harm the image of the company, or a confidentiality clause that prohibits employees from disclosing the terms of the agreement to anyone besides a professional advisor or spouse. It is important to note that merely offering a contract of this nature is now a violation of the Act, regardless of whether the employee signs it.

This NLRB decision is effective immediately and applies retroactively to previously executed agreements. The NLRB recommends employers with contracts that may be unlawful to contact the affected employees and notify them that provisions that are overly broad are null and void. Doing so could help the company later on, if it finds itself litigating over such agreements because a judge would be more likely to rule favorably towards a company that attempted to comply with the new Rule. Before taking any action, each employer should evaluate their own company’s circumstances and consult an attorney if necessary to decide what steps should be taken.

While this decision changes what language can be included in employer-employee contracts, it does not totally prohibit employers from offering them. Severance agreements, non-disclosure clauses, and other contracts can still be legal and binding if carefully crafted. A lawful agreement must be narrowly tailored to the specific issues it wishes to address, rather than broadly banning an employee’s rights to communicate with the public or each other. The agreement should also have a temporal limitation where it binds the employee for a certain period of time based on legitimate business justifications, but does not bind the employee indefinitely. Finally, a lawful agreement should avoid overly broad language such as prohibiting “all disputes,” making “any statement that may harm the company,” or prohibiting disclosure of the terms of the agreement.

The attorneys at Sheats & Bailey, PLLC are experienced with drafting and revising employer-employee agreements such as non-compete agreements, offer letters, confidentiality agreements, non-solicitation agreements, and severance agreements. For more information or assistance with navigating the NLRB’s most recent decision regarding employer-employee agreements, contact Sheats & Bailey, PLLC, at (315) 676-7314.

The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this article should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter. No reader of this article should act or refrain from acting on the basis of information in this article without first seeking legal advice from counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.

How’s Your Cyber Hygiene?

Brett Findlay, Vice President, Business Risk Specialist 

Dennis Ast, Senior Account Executive, Cyber Risk Specialist

Recently, there have been multiple instances of cyber-attacks in the news – Colonial Pipeline, JBS, CNA Insurance, and Kaseya, to name a few – and yet, many attacks of this nature do not get reported.  It is important to remember regardless of the type of organization you own or work for, all are at risk of cybercrime.

This recent increase in cyber-attacks has had a dramatic impact on the cyber insurance marketplace. Gone are the days when cyber insurance could be quoted and bound with minimal information – cyber underwriters are now requiring a full application and ransomware supplemental, as well as the completion of a cyber assessment on new placements and renewals. Organizations that have developed good cyber hygiene and resiliency can obtain the best coverages and limits. Organizations that have poor controls in place are finding it more difficult to obtain proper coverages and limits and some are being declined by most, if not all, cyber carriers.

Cyber carriers are looking for businesses to have multi-factor authentication (MFA), endpoint detection and response (EDR), and backups, as well as securing all remote access. Developing and implementing a proper cybersecurity program can take many months. One cyber carrier, Coalition, has developed a cybersecurity checklist to assist businesses in protecting themselves from a cyber incident. Utilizing Coalition’s cybersecurity checklist will help businesses understand which controls cyber carriers are looking for, while also helping organizations protect themselves from a cyber-attack.

Below is a list of quick tips from Coalition to keep your business safe from cyber-attacks:

  1. Increase email security.
  2. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA).
  3. Maintain full data backups.
  4. Enable secure remote access.
  5. Update your software regularly.
  6. Use a password manager.
  7. Scan for malicious software.
  8. Encrypt your data.
  9. Set up a security awareness training program.
  10. Purchase cyber insurance.

Our experts would encourage you to take some time to review the current status of your cybersecurity program and find where improvements can be made. In doing so, you will not only refine your underwriting profile for cyber carriers, but you will also minimize the impact of a potential cyber event on your organization.

For more information please contact Dennis Ast, Senior Account Executive, Cyber Risk Specialist at (716) 572-2410 or

This content is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing professional, financial, medical or legal advice. You should contact your licensed professional to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Please refer to your policy contract for any specific information or questions on applicability of coverage.

Please note coverage cannot be bound or a claim reported without written acknowledgment from a OneGroup Representative.