TAMPA — The troops arrived here in June 1994, a small band of workers dispatched on an unusual mission.
Insurance giant New York Life wanted to set up a new unit devoted solely to pitching AARP life insurance products. The Tampa team, which had no experience in direct-mail marketing, was given three months to settle in and ship out its first major mailing.
"It was a rather daunting challenge," said Tom Toomey, the first one on the ground here.
Like many of his original co-workers, Toomey never left. Neither did that spirit of entrepreneurship and autonomy that permeated the office in those early days.
From that nascent group of fewer than 30, the local New York Life unit has swelled to more than 600 employees whose combined effort brought in more than $200 million in sales last year.
"We've tried to maintain that small-company feel," said Toomey, now vice president of Tampa operations. "We just think it makes us more entrepreneurial, a little more nimble."
Located on the fringe of Tampa's West Shore district, the New York Life complex is home to a 60-person marketing and research department, a cluster of actuaries and technical workers, a training division, a state-of-the-art mailing room and a two-floor call center that handled 2.1 million phone calls in 2009.
From distributing direct-mail pitches to fielding customer questions to processing more than 12 million payments last year alone, nearly everything happens in-house. One exception: The home office in New York prints and mails the billing statements.
"We kind of operate independently down here from the parent company," said Vicky Vilaret, first vice president of marketing. "We're able to do our own thing, create our own destiny."
The arrangement provides both the freedom to operate and the security of being tethered to two financially secure companies, New York Life and AARP.
New York Life's Tampa unit increased revenue throughout the country's financial crisis. And as layoffs took a toll across much of the Tampa Bay economy, the company rode a wave of security.
The unit has about 615 employees and expects to hire about 40 more this year. "And we need to hire some of those people right away," Toomey said.
Fueling the growth are new lines of business. After years focusing on life insurance, the company recently started marketing annuities, as well.
You won't find the high-end amenities here that some call centers pride themselves on. No on-site fitness center, no fancy cafeteria, no dry cleaner.
But what New York Life does, and does well, is find ways to take care of its people, to motivate them and reward them.
That employee focus starts with the standard work week: 37.5 hours instead of 40. The schedule gives many employees the flexibility of taking half-day Fridays during the summer. Or working one full Friday and taking the next Friday off entirely.
A couple of years ago, the company experimented with a pilot program that allowed employees to switch to a four-day week with the same number of hours. It was a hit, and the pilot program turned permanent in departments where such flexibility made sense.
Dan Rice, who oversees underwriting new business, says about 15 of the 50 employees in his department have used the four-day workweek. It's just one example, Rice said, of the company listening to its people.
"We have a very employee-focused corporate culture," he said. "It definitely invests in the employee talent."
Recognition and rewards come in many forms.
Step off the second-floor elevator in the call center building, and a flat-panel monitor flashes the names of workers being honored for customer service. Managers make videos honoring employees and pass out gift cards at monthly luncheons.
And, as every one of the 215 employees in the call center knows, there are Darrell Dollars.
Darrell, as in Darrell Robertson, who runs the call center as the company's vice president of member services.
Workers earn Darrell Dollars throughout the year based on performance, such as fewest mistakes one week. At a year-end auction, employees use their Darrell Dollars to bid for prizes such as DVD players and iPods.
On any given day, somewhere in the organization, employees are learning to be better at what they do through training. Some are taking courses online from their desktop; others are sitting in classrooms with instructors.
In 2009, employees here invested about 31,600 hours in training — learning everything from computer programs to management skills to telephone techniques to business writing.
One popular gerontology program sensitizes workers to dealing with older customers. Trainees wear blurry glasses to experience what the vision-impaired deal with in reading forms; they don earplugs so they can empathize when customers are confused in phone conversations if the speaker doesn't enunciate. The class includes grief counseling, as employees handling claims often deal with people who have just lost loved ones.
Steady on the growth
New York Life's allure is bolstered by managers who are solid stewards of what the company has already achieved, avoiding costly endeavors even as the company grows.
Rather than invest in a new complex, for example, New York Life has stayed in the same office park where it started out 16 years ago, expanding from a single floor to a whole building. As other tenants such as USAA and Capital One moved out to open new headquarters, New York Life absorbed their space.
Now it occupies all three buildings on the site, 145,000 square feet.
Stability. Steadiness. Reliability. All are part of the comfort zone inside New York Life.
"So many things have naturally fallen into place for us," Toomey said. "We've been very fortunate."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ jeffmharrington.