Becoming a “Best Company”: People are the AnswerPublished: August 11, 2004 in Knowledge@Emory
Throughout the years, businesses have spent countless hours and dollars searching for the “secret” to success. Much of this effort is not necessary, because the true secret is already in place at most businesses. Unfortunately, most companies just don’t know it. The best companies, those who make Fortune magazine’s list of The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America, know that the most powerful ingredient in any business’ success is its people. Representatives from seven of these companies, all based in Georgia, recently discussed their successful strategies with students, faculty and guests at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, as a part of the groundbreaking celebration for Goizueta Business School’s new Goizueta Foundation Center for Research and Doctoral Education, scheduled for completion in August of 2005.
Tom Robertson, Dean of Goizueta Business School, opened the session. “What better way to celebrate the growth of the school than to call on companies whose success reflects what is best in business.”
Fortune describes its 100 Best Companies list as “the definitive report card on corporate reputations.” Companies are ranked based on eight attributes: innovation, financial soundness, employee talent, quality of management, use of corporate assets, long-term investment, social responsibility, and quality of products/services. The scores were accumulated based on surveys of executives, directors, and securities analysts.
Columbus-based Synovus is ranked #20 on the list, and is also named one of America's Most Admired Companies. Synovus, a $22 billion bank holding company, differentiates itself from the competition by holding separate banking charters and separate names. “We have a company that exists for 42 separate community banks. They have their own identity,” says Anthony. “The point here is the power of small groups. If you’re trying to create a great place to work, if you’re trying to build trust, pride, and camaraderie, at all levels of your company, throughout all ranks of team members, you’re going to have a much better success rate if you allow your teams to compete in small groups.”
Simmons, an Atlanta-based mattress company, has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past few years, says senior vice president for product development Allen N. Podratsky. The company is proud of its “huggable” culture. It is working, too, because Simmons entered the list for the first time at #100. “We really started the culture all over from ground zero and have built an incredible enterprise without ever talking about profits,” Podratsky says. “We more than doubled the value of the company in three years. The only thing we talked about was associates and customers.”
“It really is possible to have an organizational culture revolution at a company,” he continues. “A lot of people say, ‘once we have a big company, it’s impossible to change.’ Absolutely not, if people want to change, they will. You must have a noble goal, and obviously a financial goal. At Simmons, our noble goal is to provide better lives through better sleep. If you can’t successfully manage the one-third of your life and rest and recharge your brain, whatever you do in the other two-thirds of your life, you can’t be effective. That is our goal and we take it very seriously.”
Few people associate “love” with security services. Barton Protective Services uses the word nine times in its values statement. Charles Barton Rice Jr., chief strategy officer for the company, says his father founded the company in 1977 “to give someone who is a security officer a dignified profession.” Barton’s respect for its employees, in a high turnover, highly competitive industry, has helped it make the “Most Admired” list for five consecutive years.
“There are 11,000 different businesses in this industry, and most of them call their employees ‘guards,’” says Rice. “We tried to change the lexicon a little bit. We say ‘security officer.’ We give them real benefits, real training. In 28 states there is actually no training required to become a security officer—two and a half years after 9/11. We offer real opportunities to grow in the industry, which were never available to a front line security officer with just a high school degree. Some of our security officers have been with us for 25 years.”
Barton utilizes an open door policy, says Rice. Everyone in the front office, including the CEO, is available to any employee by e-mail or telephone. “Our employees use the privilege, and it is not all for negative things. It is very liberating; if they have issues, there is more than one place they can go and be heard.”
Law firms are not known for being family friendly, but Atlanta-based Alston & Bird is that and more. Managing Partner Ben Johnson says that the best way to attract legal “stars” is to have a better workplace. “Getting business is a byproduct of focusing on how do you nurture, how do you attract, how do you mentor, and how do you align stars,” says Johnson. “Stars are people that have uncommon ability—whether it is a high IQ, EQ, or whatever. The professional services firms must be able to attract and get the stars, and align them so that they are all heading in one direction. If that’s what you’re all about—and it sounds like a simple proposition—then you’ve got to have a better place to work than any other professional services firm.”
The firm is #2 on the Fortune list, up one spot from last year (Ohio-based Smucker’s, the jelly and jam folks, leads the list). Some of the perks that make Alston & Bird so respected include an on-site childcare center, generous maternity and paternity leave, flex time and telecommuting options.
“The people that go into law, for the most part, are prima donnas,” says Johnson. “And if you think you can put them in a box and have them be happy, forget it. You’ve got to have a lot of flexibility. So we build flexibility into what we do, in terms of work hours, telecommuting, and childcare; and that allows us to adapt our work environment to the quirks of the people who work for us. It is also a wonderful thing to have people who are happy in the workplace, because they project a sense of satisfaction to the clients, and they work better in teams in projects.”
American Lawyer magazine has ranked Alston & Bird at the top of its best employers list for several years. “Part of having a great culture is that it allows you to attract great people. If you’ve got great people, other things are going to follow that,” says Johnson.
Johnson isn’t worried about the competition stealing the firm’s secret. “They just don’t get it. And they are never going to get it,” he says, citing the legal profession’s reputation as a difficult environment, especially for young associates. “It’s so ingrained in the culture. They won’t get it, so we’re safe.”
Savannah-based Memorial Health is one of only seven healthcare systems in the country to be named to the list, at #54. The organization covers 35 counties in southeast Georgia and southern South Carolina with 5,000 employees. It is the primary hospital in the region for the most difficult health situations. Before Robert Colvin was named president and CEO in 1997, the system went through multiple CEOs in a short time period.
"We've been trying to evolve the culture," says Colvin. "For my first few years, people called it the 'program of the month club,' and kept asking when we were going to change."
"If there was ever a people business, this is it," Colvin continues. "It's a vulnerable moment for most people, and if our people are not at the top of their game, it can be a very difficult time." Some of Memorial's positive initiatives include FitnessOne, an on-site gym that offers exercise equipment and classes, lifestyle improvement classes, and health screenings. Tuition for educational courses is offered, as is up to $5,000 in qualified expenses for an eligible adoption.
These days, many American businesses are quick to show their support for American's troops abroad. But Memorial Health does more than talk about that support. Every Memorial employee called to Iraq remained on Memorial's payroll at full salary. "When it came to the issue of Iraq, we wanted to do something meaningful,” says Colvin. "We agreed that if people were going to be in harm's way, we'd pay full salary, because they still have families to support."
At one point, 16 employees were taking advantage of the plan. "It's a good thing we're having a good year," says Colvin. "Our average salary is somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000, so we're talking about a fairly sizeable chunk of money. But basically the premise is, if you were in that spot, what would help you get through this? Right now, one of the biggest challenges in healthcare is curbing attrition."
Most American’s now recognize the “duck” as a symbol of Columbus-based insurer AFLAC. But Fortune recognizes AFLAC as one of the top employers in the country. Audrey Tillman, senior vice president and director of Human Resources for the company, says much of that focus comes from the company’s leadership.
“We have a lot of fun at AFLAC,” says Tillman. “We try to make work an enjoyable place to be because we’re there for such a large portion of our day. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, what’s the point? Our company was founded by the Amos family, and it was founded on the premise that if you take care of the people, the people will take care of the business. We find that largely to be true.”
Tillman points out that what AFLAC sells is “A promise to be there should you need insurance. How our employees feel about the company affects our bottom line, because when that policyholder calls one of our customer service people, they get the only piece of AFLAC that they can touch. If that person on the other end of the line does not feel like they are working for a great place, that’s going to be conveyed to the policyholder. We do everything we can to create an atmosphere and environment that celebrates employees, that shows them how valuable their work is to the company.”
Atlanta-based HomeBanc Mortgage Corporation made the list at #39. CEO Patrick Flood says that all American businesses need to make the distinction of whether it is money first, or people first. “It really falls into those two categories pretty quickly,” says Flood. “If you value people the most, you simply need to make the commitment, and then you need to line all your actions up behind it. What happens next is, average people turn into extraordinary performers.”
Flood compares this model of success to the U.S. Marines. “The Marines take average people, and nine weeks later they are protecting us overseas unbelievably well. There is an incredible amount of investment that takes place in the nine weeks, and a brotherhood that takes place. We all want to belong someplace.”
HomeBanc starts out every meeting with the company’s mantra, “The only sustainable advantage in business is world class service.” Once each month, all employees are reminded of the company’s mission to enrich and fulfill lives by serving each other, the customer, and the community.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to miss sometimes,” says Flood. “If we have the people in the organization, the most important resources we have, if we have their will, they will put us right back on the road. We’ll maintain a success, even though we’re imperfect. And we all are.”
Each year at its annual meeting, on stage, HomeBanc spins a wheel with each month’s top customer service representative listed on it. The winner walks away with $25,000; second place receives $10,000; and third place gets $5000. The balance of the group received $1,000 bonuses. Every employee in the company is eligible.
“Happy workers, happy customers,” says Flood. “Do that well, and you’ll figure out how to turn that into a profitable business.”