Warwick, Rhode Island, is not – to put it mildly – the world’s most beautiful place. The one industrial site alternates with the next, and you’d have to look hard to find any greenery. Neither is the building in which Atrion Networking Corporation especially promising: the building’s only two windows are at the front in the reception area; there’s nothing else but plain walls. Not exactly where you’d expect to find an HPO… But looks can be deceiving.
Long-term focus at every level
Established in 1987, Atrion operates at the cutting edge of information technology and business. It has been doing well for years, is growing steadily and has collected a whole range of awards: (2010 Best Place to Work Award, 2009 Business Excellence Award, 2009 Fast 50 Company to Watch Award, 2009 Fastest Growing Private Company Award). We were very curious about how the company has achieved this in such uninspiring surroundings, with an average HPO score of 8.5. It became clear during the first couple of interviews that at Atrion – just like at Longfellow Benefits and Emerson Consulting Group – everything centres on the customers and the employees. Everything is aimed at building up lasting relationships with customers. As Tim Herbert, Atrion’s CEO, tells anyone who’ll listen: “If you’re having doubts about a choice, you should always choose in the customer’s favour and best interest.” Another frequently heard saying: “If the customer is successful, it follows that Atrion will be too.” This sharp customer focus means that there are companies that have been customers of Atrion since 1987 and that most of the business arrives via those companies’ word of mouth. Perhaps needless to say, strong emphasis is placed the quality of the services Atrion provides. Managers and employees constantly talk about how and where they can improve all levels of the company. This continuous improvement calls for rigorous focus on strategic performance management in which Atrion’s critical success factors and performance indicators are charted and passed on to everyone in the organisation. Also, the organisation recognises and rewards good performance with small bonuses, honourable mentions and prizes such as a parking space right in front of the entrance for the month’s best employee (who is chosen by fellow-employees).
Harvard University of the industry
The business model chosen by Atrion can only be put effectively into practice if the employees stand four-square behind it and are willing to stay with the company for the long haul. With the support of a strong culture of empathy, integrity, openness and trust, new employees are exposed to Atrion’s values and standards from the selection process onwards. Once appointed, employees largely set out their own career path, which has resulted in a lot of job rotation and versatile specialists. The employees are supported in this by ‘People Services’, a department that takes a more proactive approach than the traditional HR department. All employees – from top to bottom – also follow a leadership course given by the CEO and senior management themselves. None of Atrion’s competitors does anything like this. An almost logical consequence is that many employees have already been with the company for ten years or more. That is also true of the entire senior management team, a number of whose members even began their career at Atrion.
It is notable that Atrion is not satisfied with itself being an HPO in the sector: the organisation works specifically on raising the sector to a higher plane. The company does this by offering its leadership courses free of charge to customers and suppliers – who welcome this with open arms – and by developing ‘thought leader’ concepts in order to get players in the sector thinking and improving so that everyone’s customers are given a better service. Atrion sets out to function as the ‘Harvard University of the Industry’.
Less hands-on and more strategic management
But even at Atrion we found things that were open to improvement. The most important criticism is that the organisation, which plans to grow by thirty per cent a year in the time to come, is not allowed to have the good points that make Atrion an HPO diluted or even lost. The CEO has a clear image of how this can be achieved, but that vision is not yet being sufficiently shared with and embraced by the other managers and employees. A tricky problem here is that extra growth has to be facilitated by seamlessly connected top quality processes between various departments, and that is being hindered by the developments of recent years in which the organisation’s various departments have started to operate as independent silos. That concerns not so much the egos of the heads of department, but more the pressure to quickly deliver high quality services, which results in mutual consultation and coordination not taking place automatically and often going by the board entirely. Generating extra growth through synergy will mean opting for a structure that promotes cooperation and – even more importantly – creates routine within the management so that people work and – accordingly – improve together. That will require a less hands-on and more strategic approach from the management, which is something on which the CEO will emphatically have to take a lead. Only then will the managers be able to mobilise their people to seek more synergy between the departments, continue to provide current clients with a high level of service while more and more new clients arrive and embrace the principles of lean management to constantly improve the processes. Atrion is facing an exciting and challenging time, and the CEO has the greatest confidence that the organisation will continue to be recognised as an HPO in the sector. Oh, and as part of the growth and continuous improvement process, Atrion is due to occupy a new building – one with more windows.
André de Waal & Lilian Kolker, August 2010, Warwick
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