Acuity includes virtual reality goggles with its award-winning 2016 annual report. You attach your smartphone to the front, strap the device to your head and “walk through” a short version of the company’s highlights in a 3-D video.
It’s a 360-degree view — and you could say, that’s much the way Acuity looks at hiring and keeping its employees.
Headquartered in Sheboygan, the casualty and property insurer was recently named ninth in the top 10 of Fortune magazine’s 2017 “Best 100 Companies to Work For” list.
This is the third year Acuity has made the list; last year it ranked second. With 1,244 employees worldwide and a revenue of $1.3 billion in 2016, 96 percent surveyed rated their workplace as great.
In March, Acuity was featured on the cover of a publication packaged with USA Today on employee well-being. Acuity also recently was named to People magazine’s top 50 “Companies that Care” list. And, for the third year in a row, Acuity was the national winner of the “We Love Our Workplace” video contest from Great Place to Work.
How do they do it?
Among the company’s most visible perks: A 65-foot Ferris wheel in the atrium used for corporate and fundraising events, a 45-foot climbing wall in the fitness center, a casual dress policy and a relaxed atmosphere. Perhaps most importantly, in the “Best Companies to Work for List,” the company scored high for its sense of camaraderie, pride, respect and fairness among employees.
CEO Ben Salzmann says for companies looking to boost their own ranks with happy, productive employees, such an honor does not come overnight.
“We have a fail-safe way of getting new talent,” he says with a sly grin. “There’s only one drawback: You have to start 18 years in advance.”
By this, he means, Acuity began an earnest quest back then to become top of mind for young people in Sheboygan. Sheri Murphy, now vice president-services and administration, started the efforts with a spelling bee. Acuity began hosting and sponsoring more activities for youth, such as Math Counts, the Cool Picks reading program, a chess tournament, 4-H and Junior Achievement events.
Acuity also invites every eighth-grader in Sheboygan County — more than 1,500 students — to its campus each year.
“We bring them into our building for a tour, a lunch, we teach them about insurance (and we do that as part of the state-mandated curriculum for career development),” Murphy says. “They also get a ride on our charity wheel. We let them know if they do well in high school and college, we are definitely an employer they should look at.”
The company boasts a retention rate of 97 percent. It wasn’t always so.
Before Salzmann was named CEO 19 years ago and shaped a fresh leadership team, its culture was robotic, “a very hostile environment,” he says.
“A bell rang at 8 o’clock and if you weren’t in by 8 o’clock, it was recorded and you got in trouble,” he recalls. “At 9:30, a bell would ring and you would have 11 minutes to get coffee, a bell would ring and you would have four minutes to pee. Then a bell would ring and you would have to be back at your desk.”
Employees were not allowed to eat or drink at their desks, or even post photographs of their families and pets. The turnover rate was 33 percent. Worse, the company was losing money.
Salzmann and his new team surveyed the employees, took suggestions and made changes.
Fast forward to 2017, and the company is not only outpacing competitors and the industry, but it’s in growth mode.
In the last six years, Acuity has increased its number of employees by 700. Last year it hired 156 people and added 61 agencies nationwide. It has representatives in in 25 states, with plans to expand into Texas this year, then Virginia, New York, Oregon, California and Washington.
To accommodate growth, Acuity doubled the size of its headquarters last year, to more than 1 million square feet, with tall atriums and colorful artwork throughout. A new, 27,000-square-foot fitness center includes not only exercise machines and mats but also several ping pong tables and the climbing wall.
Employees can choose from one of 26 exercise classes in the fitness center each week or schedule a massage. New employees are invited to join the Five-Year Club, which organizes fun outings from kayaking and alehouse hopping to community service activities. And on “Even Thursdays” of the month, employees are invited to linger after work for free beer, wine and pizza. Families can join them and ride the Ferris wheel.
From September through March, employees reported more than 20,000 volunteer hours. The company distributed $1.4 million in charitable contributions in 2016, including $500,000 to charities selected by employees.
Treating employees well has paid off for Acuity. For the past 17 years, the company has consistently grown faster than the insurance industry overall, Salzmann says. The long-term average sales growth is 10.5 percent, compared to the industry average of 4.5 percent.
“We involve our employees throughout the entire journey — they’re always in the know of what’s happening,” Salzmann says. “When we hear employee feedback, we make changes. We work very hard to drive home the pride component — that no matter what your role or position is here at Acuity, it matters to your co-workers, it matters to our customers, to our agents, to our policyholders and to our community.”