Omaha B2B Quarterly Magazine article

All but the most Scrooge-like employers want contented employees. But knowing how to make workers happy—while boosting productivity and ensuring a healthy bottom line—is too often a different story

Many progressive, large companies devote plenty of resources to creating a positive “corporate culture,” that catchphrase from the employee-friendly ’90s often defined as an organization’s shared values, beliefs and norms. But with fewer resources, and less division of labor, how can small and medium-sized companies develop a corporate culture that aligns company goals with employees’ well-being?

Two medium-sized Omaha companies say they have the answer: Hire the people who best fit your company, give the workplace a family-like atmosphere, then use the company’s value system to develop rewards and amenities that both engender employee loyalty and actually improve productivity and profits.

Omaha-based America First Companies and Professional Veterinary Products Ltd. (PVPL) are disparate companies with different corporate cultures, yet both have proven they know what a healthy corporate culture is all about. Both were named to the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s 2003 list of “Best Places to Work in Omaha.”

America First Companies, an investment management company with offices at 10th and Farnam streets, offers onsite amenities to all employees that instead seem tailored to an incoming VP: dry cleaning, banking, film processing, personal travel, a concierge service, packaging and mailing, oil changes and car washes.

On top of this, the company has a $20,000-a-year grocery budget to stock the full-service kitchens found at each of the company’s three floors. America First’s 65 employees can order the groceries they want and can have a free lunch and breakfast every work day.

The purpose is not to see how many freebies can be dished out, but to create an atmosphere of family, loyalty and open communication, says Lisa Roskens, America First’s president and CEO.

“We want to make it easier for our people to get through the day,” Roskens says. “It’s easy to do this because we’re small. And we do this because they are all people, and they all matter.”

The grocery program might seem pricey to some, but Roskens says the lunch program is in place because of the convenience it provides. As a result, employees come together frequently to socialize, share ideas and learn the different roles of their coworkers.

This camaraderie means employees interact in a “spontaneous and familial way,” says Roskens, who cites the example of employees donating vacation and sick-leave time to a coworker who had a family member with a serious, extended illness.

“We do things that you would have done in a crisis in your own family.”

Roskens meets with employees after they have worked for America First for two months. She tries to learn what the company is or is not doing well and gather the ideas these new employees think will add to the company’s success. This open and friendly atmosphere means we have “nice people who have the right attitude about doing their job,” she says.

Two-way, open communication is also an integral part of Professional Veterinary Products’ corporate culture, which Cheryl Miller, PVPL’s director of corporate services, calls the “personality of the company.”

Company founder Dr. Lionel Reilly holds informal and intimate quarterly all-employee meetings that are like “FDR’s fire-side chats,” Miller says.

In addition, daily updates show all employees the latest sales figures, the number of orders placed and comparisons with PVPL’s stated goals and last year’s numbers. Other information in the updates includes employees’ birthdays and job anniversaries.

“Every employee, no matter what they are doing, understands their role … and has a big-picture perspective of the company,” Miller says.

Keeping communication lines open between management and employees has been important because the company’s quick growth means the dynamics of PVPL’s business can change rapidly, Miller says.

PVPL, which sells and distributes more than 20,000 animal-health products to veterinarians, began as a one-man operation in 1982 with Dr. Reilly brining in $1 million in sales that first year. Today, PVPL has about 300 employees (200 at PVPL headquarters near 134th and Cornhusker streets) and often sells $1 million in products in a single day.

In addition to the company’s communication initiatives, PVPL strives to add fun to make employees’ jobs less mundane. There are birthday exchanges, potlucks, and contests such as who can wear “the ugliest tie” or “ugliest socks” to work.

Chris McGonigle, PVPL’s employment manager, tells the story of how management’s potentially dry policy-and-procedures meetings are transformed into laughter-filled camaraderie-builders by turning them into a game of “Jeopardy!”. But turning a required meeting into an entertaining “game show,” employees retain more of the information that’s presented, she says.

“And they now have something they can tell a story about,” McGonigle says.

PVPL also has a “corporate university” open to all employees who can take up to eight hours of classes each month on company time. Class topics include computers, customer service, behavior styles and personal betterment. Dr. Reilly teaches a quarterly class on the history of PVPL and Miller teaches a corporate culture class. The company also has a fitness center, overseen by a licensed physical therapist, used regularly by about 40 percent of employees.

When injuries cropped up among PVPL’s warehouse distribution center workers, the company implemented a “prework stretching program” that helped boost morale and improve health. Since the fitness center was put in place, Workmen’s Compensation claims dropped from $57,000 in fiscal 2001 to $6,000 in fiscal 2002, McGonigle says.

Small businesses like America First and PVPL that create worker-friendly programs and a family atmosphere can go a long way in improving the morale and retention of employees, says Larry Gomez, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s director of small business services.

For the employees, the comfortable, flexible atmosphere found at many successful companies often offsets the fact they could be making more money at a larger company, he says. “Big businesses can never be as flexible as small ones,” Gomez says. “These types of things take the place of dollars a lot of times.”

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