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Best places to work in money management

Communication a key thread for winners

Balentine’s lunch and learn series allows the workers to expand their horizons.

Companies keep lines open and find new ways to engage employees

Money managers and investment consultants are finding more innovative ways to ensure employees are kept in the loop.

Pensions & Investments' Best Places to Work in Money Management survey found many firms are communicating and engaging with their employees in an increasingly digital way, tapping companywide intranet to stream meetings, town halls and other corporate news to desktop computers — no matter where employees are located.

A number of initiatives stood out in this year's survey, including extracurricular activities designed to engage employees in the form of educational seminars and lunchtime briefings, happy hours and barista-quality coffeehouses.

A 2017 winner in the Best Places to Work program, Cornerstone Advisors Asset Management LLC take the responsibility to communicate what's going on in the business seriously — particularly as it moved to a 100% employee-owned company through an employee stock ownership plan last year. Cornerstone, which employs 28, also was named a BPTW winner in 2016.

"We do see it as a responsibility to (communicate) since everyone owns a piece of the organization," said CEO Thomas J. Scalici.

One way of doing that is through its "Cornerstone University" initiative. The initiative builds off one of the firm's principles, thought leadership, "and everyone is or can be a thought leader in their particular area of expertise," he said.

Executives encourage employees to present at Cornerstone University for a number of reasons, including: knowledge transfer and cross training, awareness of services and capabilities across the firm, and helping employees feel comfortable in presenting to others.

"There is also good camaraderie because we buy lunch for everyone," added Mr. Scalici.

Classes vary in topic, including presentations on compliance and the Department of Labor's fiduciary rule. Mr. Scalici also presents. "It is a more structured way … to share intellectual capital throughout the firm."

Mr. Scalici said he and Malcolm "Skip" Cowen II, president, also spend about an 90 minutes with each employee at the end of the year to discuss their career goals. "What new skills do you need, how much do you want to be making — it gets people to project forward as opposed to looking backward."

Lunch, learn – and more

BPTW winners also make liberal use of food and drinks to help foster communication and engagement policies.

For example, employee-owned money manager Balentine LLC, now a four-time winner in the BPTW program, runs a "lunch and learn" series to "ensure that all employees are knowledgeable about the services that we, as a firm, offer our clients," said Robert M. Balentine, chairman and CEO.

Topics range from the Atlanta-based firm's new financial planning software; to GIPS compliance; to a presentation by a young team member whose background was in the music industry. She created a presentation to show parallels between music and finance industries, Mr. Balentine said.

"We also like to keep it fun, like when senior investment analyst Ben Webb created an interactive game to teach everyone how reinsurance works. Not only do our lunch-and-learns educate the entire staff, but they also provide an opportunity for team members to hone their public speaking skills and build confidence," he said.

The series at the 32-member firm now encompasses outside speakers, such as 401(k) plan professionals, estate planning attorneys and even a psychologist to talk about children and money.

Sharing knowledge and coffee is a tool for Spectrum Investment Advisors Inc., where executives at the Mequon, Wis.-based firm have a few favorite expressions, said James Marshall, president and founder.

One is "celebrate the wins," and the other is "enjoy the ride."

The firm's headquarters, built almost six years ago, features a large coffeehouse. "What started out as a lunchroom became a break room, became a coffeehouse, became an experience," said Mr. Marshall.

The firm, making its first appearance on the BPTW list, runs seminars in the coffeehouse covering markets, "something we need to know" such as social security, and "something fun." This year, "we had an Army Ranger that fought at Black Hawk Down," Mr. Marshall said, referring to the 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia.

At these seminars, barista-quality lattes and other coffee drinks are served.

The 21-employee firm also hosts a "Go Meeting" every Monday morning to discuss goings-on at the firm, what was achieved in the previous week and what is to come. Every employee goes over what they are doing, so the "left hand knows what the right hand is doing," added Mr. Marshall.

Making its third appearance as a Best Places to Work winner, LaSalle Investment Management executives also recognize the benefits of eating and drinking together in the workplace.

Chicago-based Jason Kern, CEO-Americas, who oversees $18 billion of the firm's $58.1 billion global assets under management, said LaSalle's "happy hour concept came about sort of out of necessity, I felt. There are plenty of different meetings that happen in the normal course of our business … That is great for keeping people informed and in touch, but often fails to reach across the organization" in terms of levels of seniority and business groups, he said.

Happy hour was started to help bring people together in the firm's previous office building in Chicago, where the layout was a set of "rabbit warrens," cubicles and large structural elements that impeded views. Mr. Kern said this naturally led to a silo mentality. The company employs 264 in the U.S.

So when the firm moved to its new global headquarters in Chicago, an open floor plan was deployed. Gone were the cubicles with high walls and obstacles in sightlines.

And the cafe is significantly bigger than before. Employees get their "really good coffee and food" and chat in the café. It has "greatly increased the communication flow," Mr. Kern said.

New York-based chairman and CEO at Neuberger Berman George H. Walker even hosts informal dinners at his home with employees. Mr. Walker also answers all of his emails directly. Neuberger, which employs about 1,500 in the U.S., is making its fifth appearance in Best Places to Work.

"Our CEO answers all his emails directly—sometimes to the surprise of employees—never turns down an impromptu chat in the cafeteria, and frequently does update videos and town halls for all," said Heather Zuckerman, managing director and chief administration officer at the firm in New York. "We also see great value in more personal engagements, including when our CEO hosts informal dinners at his house with a smaller, cross functional group of employees. These dinners help build strong relationships, while also presenting a more relaxed environment to gather feedback and ideas, ask questions and dig deeper on subjects that are relevant to the group."

Overcoming distance barriers

A number of the firms in this year's survey highlighted efforts to ensure employees across the globe are involved and engaged in all they do.

And the importance of keeping satellite-office-based employees in the loop comes from experience of the firms' top executives.

Maribeth S. Rahe, president and CEO at Fort Washington Investment Advisors Inc. in Cincinnati, has completed "two tours of duty" in offices outside of headquarters in her previous jobs with other firms.

"Leadership begins at the top — the tone that a satellite office takes is very much dependent on ... that they be included and communicated with," she said. "It comes from HQ. It is particularly challenging when (offices are) in different continents and time zones. So I'm very cognizant about that."

Fort Washington, with 135 employees, has two new offices — one in Albany, N.Y., and the other in San Francisco. "We're even talking about how we shift some of our standard meetings (to better accommodate varying time zones) — we want them to feel involved," said Ms. Rahe.

One of the first things done for those offices was to install video conferencing. "It's so much nicer when you get to see people," she said.

Ms. Rahe is also keen to focus on engaging younger staff members, something the firm does through its "Fresh Network."

This group of young professionals prepares recommendations for senior management aimed at enhancing the firm: from community outreach and social events, to an innovation idea exchange through a recent "Shark Tank" event, she said.

Executives also recommended an overhaul to the firm's orientation process. "They determined we could do a better job of on-boarding employees," Ms. Rahe said.

The Fresh Network put together a need-to-know list of strategies and people at the firm "That has been invaluable," Ms. Rahe said.

Fort Washington is a four-time winner in the BPTW program.

Mr. Balentine also has previous experience of working in a satellite office, being based out of Atlanta in a former role while other executives were in Delaware.

"I understand what it's like to be on the other side of the speakerphone," he said.

"Therefore, Balentine insists upon using video conferencing whenever possible for team meetings. Being able to read facial expressions, body language … all the essential non-verbal cues — in addition to tone and inflection is so much more effective than solely relying on email," he added

And there is of course space and time for non-work related activities to promote employee engagement. Balentine holds an annual Halloween party in the Atlanta office. "A remote employee who was unable to attend in person still dressed her son in his duck costume and FaceTimed with us.

"While it takes a bit more effort ... we have found that engagement is a choice and not simply a byproduct of proximity," he said.