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  1. Business

A team of self-starters at e-Ins makes for a happy — and productive — workplace

ST. PETERSBURG — e-Ins, an insurance services firm debuting among Tampa Bay's Top Workplaces this year, has deep ties to a perennial name on the list: American Strategic Insurance, or ASI. Property insurer ASI — the No. 1 midsize company among Top Workplaces for three out of the past five years (including this year) — is a sister company of e-Ins. ASI is also e-Ins' main customer and, come Memorial Day, the company is moving into a newly constructed twin building on ASI's St. Petersburg campus. So does e-Ins need advice from its big sister on what it takes to make a happy workplace? Hardly. It's doing just fine.

The more than 70 employees already have plenty of reasons to relish their company.

Financial incentives alone are impressive: 100 percent employer-paid medical insurance, plus dental, life and disability coverage; a 6 percent 401(k) match and bonuses.

e-Ins workers often get together at company-sponsored events outside the office: Rays, Bucs and Lightning games, summer barbecues and picnics, and even a company-sponsored cruise to Cozumel two years ago.

Back at the office, employees are expected to produce, while being spared micromanaging.

"We're not babysitters," said Mark Postier, chief information officer and co-founder. "We hire people and put them in the right positions. They have to be able to work and manage themselves and manage their time."

Being a self-starter is part of the culture ingrained in the company since Day One.

A lean operation

President and CEO Lyle Vincent, chief operating officer Sheryl Jeffery and Postier started with a lean operation in 2003. "With little more than a card table and a desk," Jeffery recalled.

Everyone chipped in, no matter how small the task. No one was above cleaning the kitchen or changing a light bulb. That climate of cooperation, which persists today, is one of the firm's secrets of success.

"It's not a large company with a bureaucracy and (workers) saying, 'That's not my job. Why would you ask me to do that?' " Jeffery said.

Finding self-motivated employees who can work and play well with their co-workers is pivotal, Postier said.

It's not always easy. That's why Postier feels fortunate that vice president of operations Stephanie Sullens appears to have a knack for picking the right hires. "She's the deal-breaker," he said, whenever the list of potential candidates for a particular job is whittled down to two.

One question that Sullens typically asks candidates is the most favorite and least favorite aspect of their last job. (Hint to job seekers: saying that you felt lost because your employer didn't constantly tell you what to do may not be the best answer.)

Sullens also looks for people who are strong collaborators — an important skill since many of e-Ins' employees work together on IT projects, developing new technology for insurers to use in signing up customers and processing claims. "To thrive in technology, you have to have teamwork," she said.

From its IT roots, e-Ins has evolved to where roughly half its employees are now in IT and half are in operations. Beyond keeping up with the growing, nationwide footprint of key customer ASI, e-Ins is also building its flood business after being certified by FEMA in 2008 as one of just seven vendors in the country handling flood policies.

The biggest challenge for morale may be keeping up with the heavy workload, said Jennifer McIntosh, director of human resources.

"We're getting so big, so fast," she said. "Everybody's crazy busy."

To keep employees feeling connected and motivated, high-tech e-Ins recently opted for a low-tech, old-school tool: a suggestion box.

Employees hand-write notes seeking improvements — like more vending machine options or easier access to newspapers — along with dropping off notes of praise for co-workers.

e-Ins, meanwhile, continues to reward high achievers in another old-fashioned way: by paying them more.

The company passes out Christmas bonuses, with the amounts varying depending on achievement and longevity with the company. Beginning last year, executives launched an "employee spotlight" program at quarterly meetings to honor employees with a trophy and group recognition.

Looking ahead, Postier acknowledged the company doesn't, well, always look ahead. At least not when it comes to setting financial targets.

Rather, he's focused on meeting client needs, completing projects, staying nimble and keeping track of changing dynamics in the insurance industry.

One thing Postier frets little about is the marketplace itself. "The good thing about insurance is you always need it; your house always has to be insured," he said. "Even during all the foreclosures, that house had to be insured. It really balanced for us (so) we didn't see the big downturn like some. We just grew steadily."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@tampabay.com.

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