1. Business

Top Workplaces: Grow Financial Federal Credit Union shares strategies for success

Grow Financial Federal Credit Union is in a league of its own, earning the top spot in the large-company category of Tampa Bay's top workplaces for the second year in a row. Don't expect CEO Bob Fisher to rest on his laurels, however. He and his executive team inside the Tampa-based credit union are constantly looking for fresh ways to keep workers engaged, motivated and, perhaps most of all, happy. The institution — founded in 1955 as a safe place for military personnel of MacDill Air Force Base to save and borrow — does all the right things on the financial side for its employees, with annual bonuses and generous 401(k) matches. But what sets it apart is an employee-centric culture that gives workers autonomy to make an impact every day, self-direct their careers and have plenty of fun along the way — be it through dressing up every Halloween; enjoying an annual catered meal; or attending company outings and cookouts.

Grow's knack for living up to its name doesn't hurt morale either. The 22-branch credit union is adding four more branches this year as its membership has swelled to nearly 170,000. The expansion of locations and services from Florida to South Carolina not only helps members, but also provides employees with more opportunities to advance and learn new skills.

The Times talked with Fisher and Grow executive vice president Thomas Feindt about strategies for success.

Consistently ranking as a top workplace is quite an accomplishment. What's your secret?

Fisher: Being able to convey to our employees that we all want to be the best at what we do. Everybody wants to be good at something. We've developed this culture and made this a place where you can be really good at what you do and you'll be recognized for that.

We put our employees at the top of the list. We have members to take care of… but if I don't have happy employees, that's not going to happen. We have to make sure we have the right people and we recognize them. You try to hire people who are generally happy and have a passion for doing something. If you hire people who are passionless, you're not going to be successful.

Feindt: I go back to the development of our mantra and guiding principles. ("Be Bold. Be Great. Have Fun.") That didn't come from a book; that didn't come from a consultant. It came from conversations with our team members about what makes this a great place to work. What are the things we need to start doing, stop doing and continue doing?

Many companies talk about having a unique culture, but not all pull it off. How much does it help if employees connect with Grow's mantra?

Fisher: If you don't know who you are, you're not going to be able to develop. We make sure our employees know where we're going so everyone is on the same page.

From my perspective (Grow's culture) is getting stronger. We saw the perfect example of that (traveling) in Seattle. We walked into two financial institutions. At one of them, it took five minutes for an employee to even recognize we were there. At the other one, which is very well known for its culture, it was swarm, swarm, swarm. They were on us the minute we walked in.

We're getting stronger at that. We want to make sure when somebody walks in, they're recognized (and) it's acknowledged we'll take care of their business. That's getting your employees to buy into the fact we are here for one sole reason: to serve the members of the credit union.

If I owned a grocery store, I would certainly want to buy my own groceries there. I would want my employees falling all over me when I walked in. Credit unions are owned by their members. Shouldn't the members expect the same thing of us?

Feindt: I think our culture has gotten stronger over the last couple years just through better communication of our strategy. It's not that it was anything new; it was just more coherent messaging.

How do you keep the lines of communication open?

Fisher: A couple things. We have a video production studio, so I do a monthly video for employees… We have an intranet site called The Vine that we post stuff on. You open up your computer in the morning and our intranet comes up first. All the happenings, photos, articles.

Once a year we have an all-employee meeting (which) we use to roll out new things. This year, we rolled out our new GNA, our new Growth Natural Approach.

Feindt: And we have monthly discussions with our team leaders, our management staff. We try to go to our stores regularly to have discussions with them.

As you've expanded into South Carolina, is it hard to keep employees connected?

Feindt: It's fair to say it's harder. It's harder even for engaging our stores in Spring Hill and Sarasota and Manatee County. Distance is always a challenge, but it's not something you can't overcome.

Any specific changes you've made because of employee feedback?

Feindt: We've hired internal recruiters to take some of the pressure off of our team leaders because they said they were spending too much time trying to look through the 100-deep applications.

We've recently enhanced the payroll structure for the frontline team members who work in our stores. Starting salaries and salary grades have increased this year. And the companywide incentive package has gone back in place over the last few years.

We wanted to put an emphasis on that (frontline) group and what they do for us.

How does the incentive plan work?

Feindt: We have four key goals that we measure. If we hit all four goals by the end of the year, we have a payout plan for all our team members. We had that in the past and as we went through the recession had to stop it. As times have improved, we've been able to fortunately provide that to our team members.

Fisher: Years ago, I tried to pay it out right before Thanksgiving, but it came to be thought of as a Christmas bonus, which it wasn't intended to be. So we resurrected it, changed some things and it's a true incentive program now based on performance.

Any other enhancements?

Feindt: There are promotional opportunities in our stores for team members based on their own merits. In years past, the only way you got promoted was if somebody left… Now we've developed a program where, based on our team members' competencies and their learning processes, they have a way up through the ranks.

Fisher: You can elevate yourself by taking the classes we offer through our in-house university.

Which incentives are most valuable. More training? Clear advancement opportunities? Enhanced financial rewards? Being publicly recognized?

Fisher: We have a lot of recognition programs. We have quarterly awards where we give out trophies. We just had our annual presidential luncheon. We give each person a $500 check and trophy — people who are recognized for being outstanding in their individual departments. It was about 20 people.

People want to be recognized for making a difference.

Feindt: There's a lot of different ways you can engage people. Pay is not the only driver. In fact, pay … is not the differentiator. What's the environment like while you're here? Is it fun? Do I have the ability to try to think outside the box and create new solutions?

As you've grown into a $2 billion organization, how have you adapted for executive training and succession planning?

Fisher: Thomas has been tasked with doing that this year: developing more with senior management.

Feindt: It's an internal training program. We're going to partner with Dale Carnegie.

Fisher: Including me, the senior vice presidents and above, there's 10 of us. It's a fairly small group, but I think we all work well together. It makes it easier that we're all around each other.

Bob, what about your own retirement plans?

Fisher: Well, Thomas and I just talked about that with the board. I'll be 63 in April. I will probably retire — it's not like next year — but within the next four or five years. What we're working on is succession planning not just for me but for a couple others in senior staff who will be retiring around the same time.

Culture often has a strong link to the personalities at the top. How do you keep the current culture alive after you and other senior managers retire? Is that a concern?

Fisher: That's what the board has tasked me with doing is to make sure with succession that we have the right people in the right spots. That comes down to having people that can live and survive in this culture.

We like to have fun, but let me tell you: we are a very tough group of people to work around. Not tough in the sense that we're nasty. But we expect a lot out of ourselves. We are all Type A personalities, and we live and breathe this organization 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Our personalities do come out in our organization. That's why it's important to make sure we have the right people and personalities working together.

When you're interviewing people, you can tell very quickly: Is this person a team player? How well will they interact with everybody? Can you hold up under the pressure of somebody saying, "That's a stupid idea." How are you going to take it?

So we're tough on each other. … But at the end of the day, people want to work for a winner. Because of our reputation, people see that here and want to come work for us. We get a lot of people who apply to us because a friend works here and is happy.

Feindt: We had a new employee orientation three weeks ago. As we were going around meeting the new people, I asked one of the girls, "What interested you in Grow?" She said, "Because my husband works here. He comes home every day so happy. I just wanted to be a part of that." That told me we're doing something right.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or