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Top three workplaces New York Life, American Strategic Insurance and St. Mary's School pull off a three-peat

How do you pull off a three-peat in only two years? Ask the folks behind New York Life, American Strategic Insurance and St. Mary's Episcopal Day School.

Each repeated as No. 1 in their size categories for the St. Petersburg Times' Top 70 Workplaces honors. New York Life is tops among large businesses; ASI, No. 1 among medium-sized companies; and St. Mary's, head of the class for smaller companies.

A similar three-peat has never happened before, according to the Times' partner in this special section, Workplace Dynamics, which has more than 100 corporate surveys under its belt.

Doug Claffey, CEO of Workplace Dynamics, said that all three organizations share two traits: a sense that senior management understands what's really going on and a reputation for getting things done quickly and well.

Still, he said, "there's no secret sauce" to explain the three-peat phenomenon. In fact, in one of the cases the gap between No. 1 and 2 had narrowed significantly and there was nearly a changing of the guard.

One hint at the strong showing may be based on the front end. All three companies stress hiring people who mesh with their organization.

American Strategic Insurance has its hiring process down to a science, using extensive personality testing to try to recruit people who are predisposed to positive thinking. Pessimists, in other words, need not apply.

At St. Mary's Episcopal, it helps that some of the hires already have strong ties to the school: Some went there as kids; some have sent their own children to St. Mary's.

Some, like Ansley Kriz, did both. A 1985 graduate of St. Mary's, Kriz went to New Orleans to receive her bachelor's in management from Tulane University and an MBA from Loyola University. But the lure back home was strong. She has two children at St. Mary's, a first-grader and a fifth-grader, and has worked in the school's business office for three years.

"It's like a family environment. It's very nurturing," she said. "The staff is so hands-on and helpful. Everyone is willing to jump in and do whatever it takes. There's none of that, 'It's not my job.' "

Read on to see how these three workplaces stayed at the top of their games.

No. 1 large workplace: New York Life Top local executive: Tom Kelly, senior vice president Industry: Life insurance Local employees: 638 Location: Tampa

Part of the New York-based financial conglomerate, the Tampa office of New York Life was created in 1994 to market AARP life insurance products.

The niche has proved mutually beneficial. From a tiny startup of fewer than 25, the Tampa operation has been in expansion mode virtually ever since. Last year it added 30-plus employees, bringing its work force to nearly 640. Adding dozens more this year will bring it closer to capacity in its three-building campus near Tampa International Airport.

Since its debut as the top large company in Tampa Bay last year, New York Life has made some changes physically and internally to improve the work environment. It's renovating the campus, upgrading landscaping and adding a long-discussed cafeteria and fitness center.

But New York Life's appeal has never been about amenities as much as it has been about atmosphere — one of trust, financial safety and employee empowerment.

As they did last year, employees gave high marks to the company's flexible scheduling options. One popular program allows employees in some departments to switch to a four-day week with the same number of hours. Some may opt to switch to four days for a while and then go back to five days.

"I love the work-home balance," said Mindy Mullen, a six-year employee of New York Life with two young children. The director of systems and accounting is taking a two-year management training program at the company.

"It gives you the tools to be a successful leader," she said.

The company is also keen on kudos for a job well done. Under the "Thanks to You" program, which was implemented since last year, employees are rewarded redeemable points for doing a good job. Points can be redeemed for a variety of gifts, from a bicycle to an iPod to a microwave oven.

"It's getting more and more attention. It's used by managers and employees. And you can nominate your co-workers," said Tom Toomey, vice president of New York Life's AARP operation in Tampa.

The program, which replaced a monetary award program, has been a hit, Toomey said, because workers can set point goals toward a desired gift.

A corporatewide theme this year is innovation, with an eye toward money-saving tips.

Exhibit A: Whenever someone bought a policy through the AARP life insurance program, New York Life's Tampa office used to hand-assemble a welcome kit that included riders, insurance coverage upgrade offers and policy copies. At times, up to 15 employees would be stuffing inserts.

Now the entire system is automated. The projected savings is a half-million dollars in the first year alone.

It's not all about the bottom line, however.

"We try to have some fun along the way," Toomey said.

One of those fun events is a companywide picnic with executives from New York coming down to celebrate the company's No. 1 rank in Top Workplaces last year.

No. 1 midsized workplace: American Strategic Insurance Top executive: John Auer, CEO Industry: Property insurance Local employees: 250 Location: St. Petersburg

The headquarters of American Strategic Insurance, on the third floor of a St. Petersburg office building off Gandy Boulevard, is professional but not fancy.

It has a modest break room with a TV, a place where staffers bring potluck lunches on occasion. They congregate for an annual chili cookoff, hold bake sales and host theme parties for events like the Super Bowl and St. Patrick's Day.

What the company lacks in frills it more than makes up for in attitude.

Talk with half a dozen ASI employees about what makes their workplace so inviting and nearly all mention "attitude at some point in the conversation. Attitude, in fact, is what ASI executives say the first word in what their acronym really stands for: Attitude. Speed. Innovation.

It's so critical, it's integrated into the hiring process. Applicants are screened to see how they handle stress. The company tries to match personality attributes to prospective roles. Introverts aren't necessarily the top choice for someone who talks to customers on the phone all day. Someone who thrives on interaction may not be suited to be a deskbound accountant.

Perhaps the hardest part of the process is determining how an applicant might approach his or her job.

"We can teach insurance, but we can't teach people to wake up every day and decide to be happy about their lives," said Mary Frances Fournet, vice president of production management.

"We try to fill our place with people who tend to be happy and then try to give them reasons to stay that way," said ASI chief executive John Auer.

And how do you promote an environment where people stay focused and motivated? "By empowering them," Fournet said.

For instance, product manager director Phil Brubaker says the company didn't micromanage as it rolled out its insurance products into a dozen states. Every state has different regulations and different policies, which forced ASI employees to work efficiently in making decisions.

"People step up," Brubaker added. "People who come to work here have a can-do attitude."

Once a month, employees gather to eat bagels and applaud individual accomplishments in each department.

To promote wellness of body and mind, ASI offers a gym membership reimbursement program, a smoking-cessation program and team-building activities that are "fitness minded." Team-building activities have included white-water rafting trips, canoeing and hiking.

On the financial side, the company eases workers' burdens by covering 100 percent of medical insurance plus offering up to a 6 percent company match in its 401(k) retirement plan.

When ASI was formed, it didn't take the route of many Florida property insurance startups that take high-risk policies out of state-run Citizens Property Insurance to establish a base. Rather, the company methodically developed a more geographically diverse business, spreading its risk around. Today, it's the fourth-largest private property insurer in Florida with 280,000 policies representing $300 million in premiums.

It struck deals with Geico and Progressive, two top auto insurers that didn't offer property insurance and needed a partner to offer their auto customers a combo, discount package. The company has also teamed up with USAA, the financial services giant that focuses on serving members of the military and their families.

In short order, ASI has expanded into 12 states, plus Washington, D.C. Auer's goal is to expand into a total of 27 states representing 80 percent of home- owners insurance premiums in the country.

To keep up with demand, ASI added about 50 workers last year. No doubt they were optimistically oriented.

No. 1 small workplace: St. Mary's Episcopal Day School Top executive: Scott D. Laird, headmaster Industry: Private school, pre-K to 8th grade Local employees: 55 Location: Tampa

The eighth-graders arrived that day prepared to participate in a daylong public speaking class. Parents thought the same thing.

Instead, students were loaded on buses and taken to Orlando for a surprise field trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.

"It was all an elaborate farce," said Kathleen Lopez, St. Mary's director of admissions, marketing and alumni. "They were so excited. It was such a big deal."

St. Mary's, it turns out, is full of surprises.

Like a student-teacher ratio under 9-1. Like a generous tech budget that has funded hundreds of computers throughout the school, plus in-class teaching tools like Smart Boards and Elmo document cameras. Like a program within the school's endowment fund that pays for continuing education for teachers, short trips, and longer ones to New York and Boston — even one trek to Paris and another to study the Amazon rain forest.

The program, called the Sigety Fund for Professional Development, was launched under headmaster Scott Laird. Begun 14 years ago with a $20,000 donation by a school family, the fund has swelled to more than a quarter of a million dollars.

"It's made a huge difference in faculty recruitment," Laird said. "We're willing to pay for an advanced degree."

Technology is part of the core curriculum, with two computer labs, one for the lower school and one for the upper grades. All told, there are close to 300 computers in the school. First-graders learn to use e-mail.

A video production studio includes new audio equipment, new lighting, even a green screen to help technology director Carol Stefany produce a morning show with the students.

"I didn't have to jump through hoops. I didn't have all this bureaucracy" to buy equipment, said Stefany, a 16-year employee. "If it's justified, it's going to happen."

Despite a recession that has hit other private schools in the Tampa Bay area, St. Mary's has an enrollment of 440 and a waiting list.

School nurse Lydia Malafronte said she appreciates how "a sense of family" permeates the school.

Parents trust her opinion about illnesses or problems that their children may be facing; teachers work together; school administrators are open to giving family time off or flexible hours when situations arise.

"We all believe in the mission of the school," Malafronte said, citing students as the top priority. "They get their education here. They get character development and (prepared) to deal with the larger world."

It was flattering that St. Mary's was chosen as a Top Workplace last year. But pre-K teacher Adrienne Brightwell, who graduated from St. Mary's and came back to teach five years ago, thought the award's name didn't capture the essence of the school.

"This is special. … It's the only place where I put in an application," she said.

Instead of the school being hailed as a best workplace, "I wish they would change that title to just call it the Best Place."


New York Life

Local top executive: Tom Kelly, senior vice president

Industry: Life insurance

Local employees: 638

Location: Tampa

American Strategic Insurance Corp. (ASI)

Top executive: John Auer, CEO

Industry: Property insurance

Local employees: 275

Location: St. Petersburg

St. Mary's Episcopal Day School

Top executive: Scott D. Laird, Headmaster

Industry: Private school, Pre-K to 8th grade

Local employees: 55

Location: Tampa

Other top 5
midsized companies

2 Residence at Timber Pines

3 Century 21 Beggins

4 Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay

5 The Bank of Tampa

Other top 5 large companies

2 Lazydays RV Center

3 T-Mobile

4 Western Reserve Life Assurance

5 The Progressive Group of Insurance Cos.

Top three workplaces New York Life, American Strategic Insurance and St. Mary's School pull off a three-peat 04/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2011 3:36pm]
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