Vol. 49, No. 7
2800 S. Taylor Drive
Sheboygan, Wi 53081
“The word is out that this is a nice place to be,” says Melissa Winter, a central claims manager at property and casualty insurer ACUITY in Sheboygan, Wis. “You can’t bottle it, you can’t put a dollar figure on it, but the ‘happiness quotient’ is so meaningful to an individual on a day-to-day basis.” She regards the congenial working conditions as a “collateral benefit.” This is a far cry from the situation that existed when Winter joined ACUITY in January 1998. She recalls a rigid, regimented environment in which bells rang throughout the workday to signal opening time, lunch time, breaks and closing time.
This is a far cry from the situation that existed when Winter joined ACUITY in January 1998. She recalls a rigid, regimented environment in which bells rang throughout the workday to signal opening time, lunch time, breaks and closing time.
Employees say things changed dramatically when Ben Salzmann took over as CEO the following year. Under his charismatic leadership, the private mutual insurance company went from an annual turnover rate of nearly a quarter of the staff to less than 2 percent in 2004.
Fun became part of the atmosphere at ACUITY. Salzmann’s quirky sense of humor is apparent in company documents such as “ACUITY’s 2004 Speaking Tour: A Spiritual Awakening.” On the cover of this phone-book-sized “agency meeting booklet” addressed to company agents and other employees is a picture of Salzmann with his vice president of sales and communications, Wally Waldhart, and Ed Warren, vice president for commercial insurance. Dressed in monks’ robes against a background of stained-glass windows and Gothic arches, the men hold up a copy of their holy writ—the company’s A–plus insurance rating. Turn the publication over and the three have moved to the wine cellar, where they raise their tankards in a toast: “Thank You for Joining Us!”
The superior rating of the company’s financial strength is one of ACUITY’s proudest achievements. The rating upgrade was achieved during a period, says Salzmann, when several long-established insurance firms went out of business and others received rating downgrades. The rating made the company’s 2003 list of Top 100 Accomplishments, an annual list that celebrates success at ACUITY.
Along with the roster, the firm acknowledges success by publicizing individual and departmental recognition from vendors, clients and fellow employees on a hallway bulletin board labeled “When Magic Happens.” Salzmann enthusiastically shares the role of “company cheerleader,” he says, with Vice President of HR John Signer, SPHR, and the rest of the HR department.
In addition to good benefits and competitive salaries, Signer says, ACUITY promotes from within and provides plenty of training and continuing education opportunities. The success of these efforts is reflected, he believes, in the company’s extremely high staff retention rate.
To keep employees informed about current and future plans, ACUITY holds State of the Union meetings. These half-day sessions also offer a forum for employees to ask questions and get answers. At one of the biannual meetings, says Regional Sales Manager Shane Paltzer, an employee asked about the possibility of setting up an on-site day care center. Paltzer and his wife, who also works for the company, have three small children, so the prospect of on-site day care was appealing.
The company researched the issue and learned that these centers don’t work well for some companies. The problem: Children who don’t play well together can result in co-workers who don’t work well together.
Although Paltzer didn’t get the day care help he had hoped for, he says ACUITY did “all I can ask for.” The company listened, he says, it examined the issue and then reported back on why it had decided not to set up the day care center. Salzmann says that such fair and honest treatment of employees is good for business. For example, he says that soliciting employee suggestions involves the staff in sharing good ideas that benefit the entire company. Signer reports that the suggestion committee received 150 staff suggestions in 2003 and increased the cash award for suggestions that are implemented from $250 to $500.
“I see a direct connection between what we do for employees and the bottom line,” says Salzmann.