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Day Three: Arkansas Supplier Shines For Employees

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Andy Cohen, as he hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

An Arkansas Gem At The End Of The Day

Hanging At Outdoor CapThe sun is going down in Bentonville, AR, when we head into supplier firm Outdoor Cap, which is just a stone’s throw away from Wal-Mart’s headquarters. Thankfully, Chris McConnell, executive vice president of sales and marketing, and Janet Franklin, marketing director, have kept the lights on for us for a quick tour. The nearly 250-employee company serves many markets—promotional products, team sports, retailers, and outdoor sports company’s like Bass Pro Shops—but its employees all seem to share two core values.

#1: “Everyone is empowered to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy,” says McConnell, as he briskly walks through the company’s customer service area, a maze of cubicles where, on a busy week, staffers answer an average of 5,000 calls per week, 97% within three rings. “I’m always telling them, ‘It’s very unlikely that you can do something to bankrupt the company.’” McConnell says. Reps are coached to listen to a customer, he says, and when they mention important events, like a child’s wedding, the rep sends a card or otherwise commemorate the event. “They can do that on their own,” he says. “They don’t need us to tell them what to do.

Andy's Giant Hat#2: While Outdoor Cap has to compete with Fortune 500 companies (many of the biggies are here, thanks to Wal-Mart) for employees, one selling point, according to Franklin, is its strong commitment to volunteerism. The company has a number of committees and groups that employees can join (all voluntary), including a Corporate Citizenship Committee, which decides on worthy volunteer and fundraising projects to get involved in. An example: When one of Outdoor Cap’s former graphic designers lost both of his legs in the Iraq War, the committee went into overdrive, raising more than $7,000 (all from employee donations) to give to the man’s family to help cover medical costs – plus, the company matched the donation to double the effort.

This spirit of caring is evident throughout the company. In a warehouse, a heart-shaped sign encourages employees to volunteer; in another part of the building, a poster showcases the company’s recent Habitat for Humanity efforts, in which more than 20 employees helped build a house in a nearby town.

And McConnell is happy to get in on the act. He recently donned a dress and cooked up hamburgers for employees after losing a bet with a fellow employee centered around the amount of Outdoor Cap staffers each could get to donate blood in a local drive. “Fun perks, money and benefits only go so far,” he says. “We try to let people here know we care. I think that’s why people stay.” 

Drivers Wanted – Summer Road Tour 2011

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Joe Haley, as he hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

OK, so there is not one person in this car who would have a second career as a driver. While we’ve done a stellar job getting ourselves from point A to point B we all have our issues.

Andy Cohen Can't ParkI’ve been the nighttime driver delivering us to our final destination of the day and in for the night. And although I can be a vocal driver, I have yet to drop any major F bombs, nor have I shown any other driver that they are “number one” even though that guy in Tennessee last night was asking for it. Just get out of the fast lane already and let me by. My problem is that I’m extremely fidgety, trying to get comfortable every five minutes. And last night it was difficult considering that a certain someone (cough-Melinda) kept turning my heated seat on. I thought that somehow a malarial infection was creeping up my back. But my biggest hurdle was that we were driving due west as the sun was setting and you see I can barely see over the steering wheel as is and the visor was not low enough to help shield my eyes from eventual blindness.

Bad Parking JobAnd then there’s Andy who’s done a yeoman’s job steering us through several states. But alas, he is not without his occasional lane-drift or the fact that since he’s from New York he thinks that the left lane is for him and him only. Oh, and turning lanes, well those are only suggestions. However, Andy’s biggest problem is that he cannot commit to a parking space. We noticed it way back in Gaithersburg, MD. Five open spaces Andy, just pick one already. And, when he does finally select a spot he has a hard time 1. pulling all the way in and 2. placing the vehicle between the lines. It’s like he’s afraid or something; parking is his kryptonite. And let’s not forget about his love/hate relationship with the Bossy Pants GPS.

Last and certainly not least there is Rumble Strips, or as everyone else knows her, Melinda. Granted she had a tough leg to drive yesterday but let’s first start at the beginning. Pulling out of a Starbucks in Bethesda, MD she clipped a curb and told us that she doesn’t do turns well in big vehicles. “What have we just gotten ourselves into,” Andy texted me. However, Melinda earned her nickname as we were winding our way through the Smokey Mountains. Look it’s a challenging job: You have ricochet walls to your left, tracker trailers to your right, tight lanes and, well, rumble strips that alert you that you have in fact left the roadway. Compounding the situation is scenery, beautiful scenery; it’s so beautiful you just have to take it in, even when you’re driving. Wait, what? So there we were on the road, off the road, on the road, off the road, etc.   
Thankfully we’re flying from Dallas to San Diego on Friday.

PS. So as we finished our trip in to Bentonville yours truly was driving. We were 72 miles away, had a quarter tank of gas and on a potty stop. Andy suggested we get gas but I thought we could make it. Besides, the one gas station in town had prices posted from like 1979 or something. (A buck 75 for regular, really?) At one point up and down the Ozarks we heard a “bing” and no one was sure what it was as we were jamming out to tunes and talking. The second time we heard the “bing” I saw that we were very low on gas and there was nothing in sight except beautiful hills. Yikes, we might run out of gas. No one was more nervous about it than me as I was so sure we would get to Outdoor Cap, no problem. At one point I imagined the three of us running out of gas, walking to find someone to help, or dialing 911 or watching as Andy’s eyes were picked at by vultures … But thankfully we made it to a sleepy town at the bottom of a hill thanks to Melinda and assistance from Miss Bossy Pants. I actually shifted the SUV into neutral every time we went down hill to conserve the precious few drops of petrol we had left. When we hit rock bottom, we found a pony tailed dude who gave Melinda directions to the nearest gas station and a few winks. We made it. Relief. But, then again, I knew we would …

PPS. Andy still can’t park.

Andy Still Can't Park


A Visit To Bluegrass Country

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Melinda Ligos, as she hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Melinda and Andy at BluegrassThree hours of road time later, we are welcomed to Bluegrass Promotional Marketing, in Charlotte, where it becomes clear immediately that this place is full of, shall we say, “characters.” One guy, Jim Grainger, a seasoned account executive, proclaims he can hum fight songs from all major universities. Indeed, he begins following me around humming (or, more accurately, imitating a trumpet while buzzing his lips together in an unnatural way) the Maryland Terrapins fight song. (He’s at a loss, however, when Andy and Joe tell him they attended Vassar and Lockhaven, respectively. Apparently he hasn’t mastered any schools beyond the ACC.)

Bluegrass DinerAccount executive Gentry Harrington, a sales superstar who is a past winner of Advantages magazine’s Sales Rep of the Year award, is engaged in a contentious game of cornhole with an IT staffer. And Mark Hansen, sales support manager, is in the company’s kitchen, designed like a diner, whipping up Toasted Almonds for Andy and Joe. As other staffers hear him fire up the blender, they come running in, cups in hand. Bluegrass’ CEO, Fred Parker, is out spending the day with board members, but he is even represented at this little party: His photo is blown up on his chair, and a message to Andy promises more advertising dollars for Counselor magazine.

To be fair, antics like this aren’t always part of a Bluegrass afternoon: The group is letting off some steam after a pretty intensive board meeting this morning, according to Sharon Dailey, who heads up HR, among other things. That, and the fact that they just witnessed the exciting U.S.-France women’s World Cup game in the kitchen, which ended in victory for the U.S. women.

Bluegrass DrinksHey, those are two rather exciting events for one day. Whatever makes these guys and gals roll, the mix of personalities and the injection of fun has resulted in some serious growth at the company over the past several years. Parker’s motto is “Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it, plan more than you can do, then do it,” and it’s clear that this culture is full of creative, can-do people.

But there’s time to get back to business tomorrow. Right now, it’s time for another Toasted Almond and a round of cornhole.  

The King Lives—in North Carolina

Filed under: Best Places to Work Road Trip 2011

From Counselor’s Melinda Ligos, as she hits the road for the 2011 Best Places to Work Summer Road Tour

Elvis LivesThere was no need for cups of coffee at our early-morning stop to Brand Fuel, situated in a suburban corporate park just outside of Raleigh, NC. As soon as we walked in the front doors, we were surprised by a three-piece live band. Andy immediately jumped into place, playing the air guitar next to a guy who was strumming an electric banjo. We shouldn’t have been too surprised by the early-morning concert. Music is a passion of co-owners Robert Fiveash and Danny Rosin, childhood friends who launched the 25-employee firm together. A musical theme is carried through the entire office: A statue of the King is at the front entrance. A piece of artwork made front trombone slides adorns the conference room. And a 1965 eight-track tape player that only plays Elvis music serves as a dispute resolution device for Rosin and Fiveash. “When we’re just not seeing eye to eye, we put Elvis on and we seem to be able to work everything out,” Rosin tells us.

Melinda and the KingAs we nosh on animal-shaped waffles and fresh fruit with employees during a “Kick Summer in the Face breakfast” (Rosin and Fiveash want to motivate employees to push through the summer slump), Brand Fuel’s staffers regale us with stories of last Halloween, where employees were encouraged to pull pranks on one another the week leading up to the big day, which is celebrated with a rousing costume contest at the local waffle house. Each year, the antics get bigger. Last year, a vegetarian’s office was filled with chicken legs; an environmentalist entered his space to find trees with daggers in them; and one unfortunate woman found her office filled with balloons—and nail clippings from multiple staffers.

Lest you think that all of this activity is frivolous (and working at Brand Fuel is lots of fun, the employees tell us), it’s clear that Rosin and Fiveash carefully plan every event, and attach a purpose to it. “We really try to re-invent ourselves with every event that we do,” Fiveash says. “It’s all about getting the creative juices flowing.”

And that’s clearly what the duo has pulled off at this morning’s event. As the band members start unplugging their equipment and employees rush around cleaning up the morning feast, there’s excitement in the air. One group is readying the conference room for a marathon brainstorming session, in which they’ll need to come up with a program to help Citizen’s Bank (one of the company’s many large accounts) come up with a plan to acquire high-wealth customers from a Fortune 500 competitor.

Rosin and Fiveash already have some great ideas as to how to help Citizens get the job done. But if the duo happens to hit a snag during today’s session—well, they’ve always got The King to help them out.


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