A Company Of Experts

I'm sitting with Amy Ruud inside Central Perk, drinking coffee and talking about stand-up comedy.

No, this isn't Friends: The Next Generation, this is the main employee lounge at ePrize, the interactive promotions and brand marketing company located in Pleasant Ridge, MI.

We've all heard the fantastic stories about how great it is to work for Google and all the perks their employees have unlimited access to (free food, laundry, child care, massages, fitness equipment, and even a giant slide to get between floors). Ann Arbor may host its own incarnation of Planet Google's offices, but ePrize is our homegrown contribution to the Michigan Business & Professional Association's "101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For."

Prized employment

Multiple floors all done up in greens and purples, with a contemporary design and an open floor plan conducive to conversation and paper football, the home offices of ePrize were designed with the intention of creating a fun, relaxed, inviting environment for the hundred or so creatives who work inside the hive. This is the team responsible for putting together over 6,000 promotions in 36 countries - for the likes of Yahoo, Microsoft, GM, and Facebook.

Inside Central Perk is a flat-screen television (with digital cable) hooked up to a Nintendo Wii and an Xbox 360. There is also a pinball machine, a foosball table, and a giant stuffed banana.

"It is not uncommon to find this banana sitting at your desk in the morning," Amy tells me with a grin. This is definitely the kind of place where they like to have fun, and are encouraged to do so.

Amy is a Senior Producer on the Client Solutions team, and she is also part of the "Team Satisfaction" focus group which monitors exactly that - just how satisfied team members are in the workplace. "Because of some cutbacks made during the economic downturn, overall team satisfaction was down. We wanted to boost morale, to make people happier non-monetarily."

The goal was to address some of the frustrations people were feeling and try to alleviate them; one adjustment included having Amy, who moonlights as a stand-up comic, "emcee" the last staff call to make it more fun.

Employee satisfaction is vital to an organization such as ePrize, which is considered the worldwide leader in interactive programs and has won numerous industry awards for their work. "The Power of 'e'" is the cornerstone of their cultural values - thinking big and always innovating - and their employees readily adopt it.

 "As employees, we initiate change ourselves," Amy states. "People hear you, listen to you, care about you and what you have to say. They hired you because you're smart and you take initiative; they don't want to hold you back from that."

As Amy gives me the full guided tour of the building, we stop in and say hi to Josh—as in, Josh Linkner, who founded this company himself 11 years ago. Josh's door is open and we are greeted warmly. With a broad smile he asks Amy about the stand-up show she was performing that evening; jokes ensue. And this guy's the owner.

 "It's not just what the building looks like, it's what we stand for," Amy emphasizes later. "The founder is completely accessible; I can email him directly and he'll actually respond to me. He genuinely cares about this company. He cares about the people who work here. We can walk right up and pop in to his office and say 'hi;' that doesn't happen at most places."

"I always wanted to work for a company like this but thought I had to move out to California to find it; I never thought it was here all this time just three miles from where I lived!"

The enthusiasm with which she speaks of the company is infectious. ""I've been here for four years and every day I learn something new. There are moments I want to pull my hair out and scream, but at the end of the day I'm still excited I get to come here every morning and I will preach it to anyone who will listen!"

Amy continues to evangelize the "Power of 'e'" by stating, "As a company, we're very transparent - there's not a lot of secrecy. When things are going wrong in the company, they tell us." Employees are treated as people, not numbers, and that difference is evident in the quality of the work they produce. ePrize has handled promotions for 75 of Fortune's Top 100 companies and continues to lead the industry in web-based interactive marketing and promotions. "It's just a great place to work. And it's in Michigan! And I work here! That's awesome!"

ePrize is just one place that recognizes the value of their employees as assets to the company's overall achievement.

The big "O"

At Organic Inc. in Bloomfield Hills, Senior Copywriter Nathan Rogers has a flexible schedule, gets to wear jeans to work, and participates in the "infamous beer bash" on Friday afternoons. "We have people who are in bands or are comedians or have dentist appointments to go to and Organic doesn't really stop any of that from happening. In fact, your boss is likely to end up in the audience for your show."

Nathan notes that while there is a hierarchical structure, it's not readily apparent. "Everyone's approachable. Sure, some of the higher-ups have offices, but I think they'd say they have an open door policy - if they were cheesy enough to say something like that."

Organic Inc. is considered the world's first digital advertising agency, and is headquartered in San Francisco with satellite offices in New York, Toronto, LA, and Detroit. They are credited with creating the Internet's first banner ads, and since launching in 1993 they have become a fully multi-media agency which is one of only a handful of agencies that can deliver accurate predictive intelligence (which predicts the results of a marketing campaign before it happens). Organic is widely regarded for delivering the best design and creative work in addition to utilizing the most cutting-edge technology to optimize their performance.

While creative and technology-driven fields tend to be a bit "geeky" in nature, Nathan surmises that "maybe Organic has more geeks because we're treated well, so that's more incentive to stick around and do great work."

Employees are encouraged to learn the Organic philosophy at "Camp Organic." Think Project Runway for advertisers: teams are flown out to Las Vegas a couple of times a year to "come up with the best pitch and sleep as little as possible." Camp O is kind of a back-to-the-basics approach to delivering campaigns, which includes personally interviewing members of the core demographic and even getting tips for better presentations from live storytelling groups like "The Moth." 

"It was the most trying professional experience I imagine I will ever have, but somehow I want to go back," Nathan says. "You can work for Organic without going to Camp O, but it really does feel like an initiation."

And another employee takes the pulpit.

Food, glorious, food

But a business doesn't have to be in the creative or technology industries to have fully-invested employees. Take Zingerman's in Ann Arbor: They've developed such a rigorous training program for their own staff of individual experts that they have made it available to other companies via seminars, custom training, and DVDs. It's called the "Zing Train", and it's easy to jump on.

One approach that they have found to be particularly successful is "Open Book Finance," which means employees are well-versed in the company's finances, making them more invested in the company's success.

It is no doubt that the Zingerman's empire has been successful in this approach, but is it practical elsewhere? Ben Hall thinks so.

When Ben Hall and Jason Murphy took over ownership of Eastern Market's Russell St. Deli a little over two years ago, they had a very specific objective in fostering a positive relationship with their employees. "If your staff is running your system they will truly care. We take a pragmatic approach to operations - if this thing isn't working, let's try this instead."

Much like at ePrize and Organic, the employees at Russell St. are treated as if their opinions matter. They are also given incentives almost unheard of in an independently-owned restaurant: Medical insurance, a dental plan, and an IRA which ownership contributes to at the maximum level. "We have extremely low turnover here," says Hall. "Ultimately, we develop really strong loyalty in our staff which translates to great craftsmanship and consideration regarding the food, which of course translates to really happy customers."

It is extremely important to Hall and Murphy that they also keep their employees up on every decision they make regarding the business. "One of the problems business owners have is not being able to teach their employees how these [business decisions] work," Hall explains. "We talk about these things in meetings so people know why we make these choices—we don't want there to be a huge separation between [our decisions and the] employees' understanding."

"They let you know exactly what's going on from top to bottom - from the money being made to the broom in the corner," says Ray Wagner, Kitchen Manager. "Every six months they present us with a pamphlet that has a breakdown of all the money coming in and going out, letting us know exactly where the business is. No [other business] is open like that and lets you know what's what."

For Hall and Murphy an effective business model is one that promotes both education and good will. The end result is that in the 28 months since they acquired the deli they have taken what was once a struggling business that had trouble breaking $600,000 with little or no profit and made it a $1 million/year business that has grown 35% during the worst economic conditions in the last 25 years. They are also committed to greening efforts with a zero-waste policy, and implement year-round fundraising efforts for Gleaners Food Bank.

Whether it is in the way employee knowledge is incentivized through various perks and cushy treatment, or the way in which vital information about the company is shared openly with the staff in order to increase awareness and make them more invested in the business's success, it seems obvious that the more an employee is treated as a valued team member -as a person- the happier they will be, and the more successful the business can become as a result. Evangelize that

Nicole Rupersburg fancies herself an expert too. She likes Detroit, eating, and writing her blog diningindetroit.blogspot.com. Her prevoius article for Metromode was Turn Up The Heat: Salsa Dancing In Metro Detroit

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here


Balloon day at ePrize

Amy Ruud

ePrize offices

game room at ePrize

Organic Inc. employees

Russell Street Deli

Diners at Russell Street Deli

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