Best 100: American Fidelity, no. 1

American Fidelity Corp.

The little things count at American Fidelity Corp., like the chairman handing out Krispy Kreme donuts to workers as they arrive in the morning or the president dishing out popcorn in the afternoon. Or the massages and kickboxing classes offered in the corporate fitness center. Or the "Kudos Corner" on the company's intranet, where Jamie Owings recently praised Karen Stafford for her "incredible customer service."

Any one of these and dozens of other workplace amenities could be dismissed as trivial, but employees at the insurance company say these perks have a cumulative effect on loyalty and morale. "We have an advantage of sorts over other companies in that we are family-owned," says CIO John Schille. "There's a genuine friendliness with colleagues and willingness to encourage their input. Over time, that pays a lot of dividends."

Of course, the big things count as well, like the fact that 95 percent of all management positions are filled by internal promotions, the generous year-end bonuses -- colleagues (as employees are called) averaged $8,300 each last year -- and the pension plan that the company funds 100 percent.

And then there's the training. Employees averaged 46 hours of class time each last year. Diana Bittle, an actuarial programmer, says she recently took a 16-week Spanish course taught on-site for two hours a week. Her boss even allowed her to do homework on company time.

"Spanish has nothing to do with my job; it was just personal enrichment," says Bittle. "I thought that was great."

What's not to like?

Kim Fisher, vice president and applications area manager, says she'd like to stay at American Fidelity until she retires. "I've been here 17 years," Fisher notes. "There must be something good about it, right?"

It's all a matter of balance, she says. "We realize that work is not people's first priority," Fisher says. "Life goes on, families go on, and other things deserve and need our attention before work. People really appreciate that."

Fisher and other IT workers praise a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation within the ranks of IT.

"When we hire people, aptitude is important, but attitude is equally important," Fisher explains. "So over the years, we have developed a staff that has excellent rapport with each other, and everyone is willing to pitch in and help."

Fisher says she judges attitude in a job recruit by gut feeling and informal group interviews with peers. "Teamwork is very important; we are not a shop that sticks people in corners and says, 'Here, do your work,' " she says.

Project teams also include end users and are co-led by an IT person and a representative from the user community, Fisher says. "We have a high degree of trust and respect for each other," she says.

The project co-manager concept was greeted with some skepticism at first. "The first few months, we kind of stumbled along," Fisher recalls. "But before long, we realized it really was going to work. It has made a world of difference."

Donna Fink, an assistant vice president and manager of customer service, was the user co-manager on a big three-year effort to automate insurance application processing. "Users and (IT) sometimes don't see eye to eye, but with this project team, we meshed," Fink says. "We all saw that we were in it together."

In comparison with IT/user relations at other companies, Fink says, "it's a lot more structured here, which helps get things accomplished. Where I worked before, you'd have a dozen people running to the programmer and saying, 'Do this, do that.' And what got done was based on who they liked best and who screamed the loudest."

Four years ago, American Fidelity established a project development office and put it between IT and the business units, reporting to the chairman's office. "It's viewed as neutral," Schille says. "It's not IS telling users what they are going to get."

The unusually tight alignment between the IT organization and users ensures that most projects are successful, Schille says, and with success comes job satisfaction. IT workers "are sincerely appreciated by our users," he says. "That's a huge factor; you can't buy that. They feel good about themselves because they are making a difference."

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