Measuring Up

Posted on Jan 1, 2010 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Margie Weiss, Weiss Health Group

Trying to describe how Margie Weiss helps businesses is like describing how a pearl is made. In the case of a pearl, a tiny piece of sand may find its way into an oyster. The oyster’s defense system kicks in and forms a coating around it. The result is truly a gem. It’s a metaphor Weiss likes to use when you ask what she does. The one-time nurse turned school professional, chief executive officer, researcher and now owner of Weiss Health Group gets inside a business, sees what’s going on and helps the organization’s leaders craft something completely unique and new.

“Margie brings so much to the table. It’s not only her work in health and wellness and sustainability, but also her ability to track down and share with us some incredible research about it all,” says Gary Kusinerz, vice president of performance excellence for Affinity Health System. “By bringing us together and helping us share our best practices, she has strengthened what we do and taken us to the next level.”

Steve Tyink, a frequent Weiss collaborator, says her varied background naturally led to what she’s doing now. “It all flows together and, in the end, she is helping businesses and creating an overall healthier community,” he says.

Weiss views what she does as a way to help organizations such as Affinity, Carew Concrete, Goodwill of North Central Wisconsin, Faith Technologies, Modern Business Machines and Miron Construction integrate their health, safety, sustainability and stewardship efforts.

Wellness has been a key issue, and companies have come up with fun and innovative ways to improve their employees’ health and a healthier bottom line, Weiss says. For example, McClone Insurance and Faith Technologies employees kept track of their daily steps on a pedometer and the company with fewer steps had to wash the cars for the winner. McClone Insurance came ahead in that challenge – and Faith’s CEO Rollie Stephenson rolled up his sleeves and got wet.

In another instance, Miron worked stretching into the daily construction site meetings (imagine a worksite with guys touching their steel-tipped toes) as a way to improve the flexibility of employees in the field.

“I’m all about breaking down silos and helping businesses integrate sustainability and wellness into everything they do as they seek to improve the organization’s triple bottom line of people, profits and planet,” Weiss says.

A philosophy years in the making
Weiss has long had a passion helping other people improve their health. Whether it was at Nicolet Clinic (the precursor to Affinity Health System) where she developed the area’s first urgent care clinic or at St. Mary Catholic Central in Neenah, where she led efforts to build a new sports complex and environmental education center, she has been at the forefront of coming up with innovative strategies for doing things better.

Weiss most recently served as chief executive officer at the Neuroscience Group of Northeast Wisconsin, which was housed on the campus of Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah. While there, the doctors decided to build their own, $8.5 million health care facility in the town of Menasha.

“I became intrigued by the link between how sustainable building practices – for example, the use of a lot of natural lighting and materials – could improve people’s health and well-being,” says Weiss, who served as project manager for the new building.

“Being inside a naturally-lit room is so much better for the soul and mindset than being in a room only lit by fluorescent bulbs.”

It was about this time Weiss, along with Tyink, who was a consultant on the project, developed the integrated HS3 (health, safety, sustainability and stewardship) philosophy.

“It occurred to us there was this tremendous cross-pollination of thoughts that you can’t have one (creating a building that makes people feel well) without the other (creating a sustainable building with lots of natural light and materials),” says Tyink, vice president of business innovation at Miron Construction. “Sustainable buildings make people feel better – whether it’s the employee or the patient – and it all comes together in a transformational experience.”

After the new Neuroscience Center was up and running, Weiss decided to form her own company.

“I wanted to expand on the sustainability and wellness efforts that I had worked on at the Neuroscience Center and help more organizations,” she says. “I really want to help companies move from their silo approaches regarding health, safety, lean and green initiatives and see how they can all come together in an integrated HS3 philosophy.”

At Weiss Health Group, she works with a select group of companies for at least one year on how they can bring HS3 to life inside their organization. She conducts on-site visits and surveys. She hosts monthly Leadership Lens meetings, in which executives from member companies gather to hear a presentation on sustainability, wellness or stewardship. They share their best practices and they learn together how to improve not only their employees’ health and safety, but also their own bottom line. Twice a year, CEOs from the participating companies come together and do the same.

“Every company has a different metric of what they’re trying to achieve,” Weiss says. “Everyone is at a different place, which is what makes this so much fun and such a learning process.”

In her first year, Weiss assembled a group of nine companies, all locally-owned or controlled and all employing at least 50. Some organizations have signed on for another year as they continue to work toward their goals while others are moving on. Weiss has signed up several new organizations, including Fox Valley Technical College, the Boys and Girls Club and Touchmark to guide them along their HS3 journey.

“Many organizations share the same thoughts about sustainability and stewardship, but the key with what Margie has done is to bring companies together in a collaborative environment where ideas can be shared and everyone can benefit,” Tyink says.

As a way to better understand sustainability, Weiss – who holds a doctorate in nursing and a minor in business administration – decided to pursue her Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

“To me, it all comes back to making connections to help improve the community’s overall health,” she says. “Everyone starts at a different point and it’s been amazing to see where they’ve gone.”

Here’s a look at how three businesses utilized the HS3 philosophy in 2009:

All in this together
As a self-insured business, Faith Technologies in the Town of Menasha is acutely aware of the rising costs associated with health care. Company leaders, led by CEO Rollie Stephenson, were committed to improving the overall health of their workforce while improving safety and looking at ways to incorporate more sustainable practices throughout the company.

“We had a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) program in place, but we really needed to take it to the next level,” says Amy Sabourin, vice president of human resources at Faith Technologies.

After meeting with Weiss and sharing best practices with the other companies, Faith Technologies decided to offer lower insurance premiums to employees who participated in the HRA.

“We increased our participation by 50 percent, which was incredible,” Sabourin says.

Discussions during the Leadership Lens gatherings led the company to incorporate health and wellness topics to activities of workers in the field. “We are trying to interweave it into all of our communications so it’s not something that’s hitting them over the head,” Sabourin says.

While health and wellness was not new to Faith Technologies, the sustainability aspect of HS3 was definitely new.

“We’re getting started with sustainability and doing little things to make it a part of what we do every day,” Sabourin says. “For example, we put together sustainability checklists for the offices and the field staff to look at. We are also providing worksheets they can take home and find ways to make their lives more ‘green.’”

Stephenson says he’s learned a lot during the monthly shared presentations.

“Plexus Corp. did a great talk on productivity and how they are learning to do more in the United States, but still remaining competitive on a global basis while Affinity talked about the improvements they’re making in the delivery of health care,” he says. “The HS3 group is a great vehicle for companies to come together and take what we’re doing to a higher level and provide more focus.”

Learning from others
Fritz Merizon, president of Modern Business Machines in Appleton, knew Weiss from Neenah’s Rotary Club. He was eager to participate in HS3.

Merizon was most interested in developing a new Health Risk Assessment program in hopes of lowering health care costs and increasing productivity (studies have shown healthy workers are more productive and miss fewer days because of illness). After listening to other organizations’ experiences, MBM implemented a new HRA program tied to lower insurance premiums. Merizon says it’s too soon to gauge its effectiveness but he expects to compare the results year over year at the end of 2010.

“The response has been positive from our workforce. Our goal is to create a healthier workplace with healthier employees,” Merizon says. “Just talking with other companies about their experiences has been helpful.”

For example, MBM gained insights from Affinity about the effectiveness of its wellness program and that providing a financial incentive would increase participation in the HRA, which in turn would provide insight to employees about improving their health.

Merizon, who employs 95, says he has learned a lot from other participants. “Even though we are a service provider and not a manufacturer, we learned from the Ariens Co. about becoming more lean and cutting out unnecessary steps in some of the things we do around the office every day.”

A different perspective
The collaborative nature of HS3 is what initially drew Affinity Health System to participate, Kusinerz says. With more than 4,000 workers, Affinity is one of the largest area employers and a leader in health, wellness and sustainability. HS3 has strengthened its efforts and offered fresh insight into how other businesses implement change.

“The teamwork, collaboration and creativity in these smaller companies were amazing,” Kusinerz says. “They are more nimble in the way they do things. If they want to do something, such as a walking challenge, they just go ahead and do it. It was great to see how companies are seeking to create healthier workplaces for their employees while also creating better experiences for their customers – and hopefully all of this work will lead to a healthier community.”

As Weiss works with businesses on crafting their own paths to improvement, she also keeps an eye on her own business plan. She works closely with organizations to determine a fee structure that fits their budget. She charges enough to cover the costs of her services and research.

“One CEO asked me how big I wanted to get and the truth is that I want to be right about where I’m at. I don’t want to spread myself too thin and not provide meaningful assistance to my clients,” says Weiss. She’s also involved in several community initiatives such as United Way’s LIFE Study, the New North’s Sustainability Committee and several local foundations.

“My goal at the end of the day is to create a healthier community and by helping these companies improve the health of their workers, the health of their environments and the health of their bottom lines, I am doing just that.”