People are first at Fortune panel



March 29, 2004

People are first at Fortune panel

By Eric Rangus

"Our business is people" is a platitude parroted by every executive worth his or her ergonomic, high-backed chair. For the seven executives gathered for a March 17 panel discussion in the Goizueta Business School's Boynton Auditorium, however, such talk is not an empty claim.

They all represented companies listed among Fortune magazine's "100 Best Compan-ies To Work For 2004," and they got together with an audience of about 100 business school students and faculty following the Goizueta groundbreaking (see story) to discuss the strategies that put them on that exclusive list.

"They were able to integrate passion, humanity and success into one package, and that's very impressive indeed," said moderator Andrew Serwer ('84MBA), Fortune 's editor-at-large. Serwer said this event was his first visit to campus in 20 years and he was impressed with the business school's transformation.

All the executives at the head table used the phrase "our business is people," or something similar to it, during their roughly eight minutes of discussion each and applied it convincingly to their industries: a financial corporation, a bedding company, a security service, a law firm, a health care provider, an insurance company and a mortgage lender.

"We're not in the banking business or the credit-card-processing business," said Synovus President and Chief Operating Officer Richard Anthony, setting the people-first tone of the panel. "All of us have to remember that we at Synovus are in the people business,"

"Our enterprise is built on personal relationships and integrity," said Allen Podratsky, senior vice president for product development and supply chain management for Simmons. He added that the bedding company's focus on its employees was one of the reasons its value has doubled in the past three years.

Audrey Boon Tillman, senior vice president and director of human resources for AFLAC, also made the connection that happier employees make for a more successful company. "If you take good care of the people, the people will take good care of the company," she said.

Injecting more levity into the laid-back panel discussion, Tillman credited the ubiquitous AFLAC duck as a major benefit to the company, noting that sales have quadrupled since the feathered mascot's introduction.

"To inject humor into advertising for insurance was unheard of," she said, adding that AFLAC's president went against all his advisers when he approved the duck campaign. "When you have some of those ducks to hand out, it opens the door. We try to make AFLAC an enjoyable place to be."

Ben Johnson also spoke of the importance of a happy workplace. "People who go into law are prima donnas," Johnson quipped. Johnson ('65C), managing partner of Alston & Bird LLP, is best known on the Emory campus as chair of the Board of Trustees. Johnson's firm ranks No. 2 on the Fortune list.

"If you put lawyers in a box, they're not going to be happy," Johnson said. "You have to have a lot of flexibility. It's important to have people who are happy in the workplace; they express that happiness to clients."

Charles Barton Rice, chief strategy officer for Barton Protective Services, a security company, said his company has devoted a great deal of resources to job training, creating a positive work environment and management accessibility. Rice said security officers, upon being hired, are given the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of corporate officers.

"That's part of our open-door policy," said Rice, a 1999 MBA graduate of Goizueta. "It's very liberating for a security officer to know there is somewhere to go to be heard."

Robert Colvin, president and CEO of Savannah-based Memorial Health, was applauded when he said hospital employees serving in the military in Iraq (currently seven, but there have been as many as 16) continue to receive a full salary. "It was the right thing to do," said Colvin. "Recruitment and retention are two of our biggest challenges. We want our people to know they can come back."

Patrick Flood, chairman and CEO of Homebanc Mortgage, was the final speaker and he wrapped up the people-centered discussion nicely. "If you value people first, make the commitment and stand by it, you can turn average people into extraordinary workers."