Companies that Blow the Doors
Off Business-As-Usual

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg


SAS develops highly sophisticated software for business and government. The privately owned SAS doesn’t post its earnings and usually shuns publicity. As a result, it has become a quiet giant with one of the most extravagant, employee-friendly cultures in the world.

sas logoSAS didn’t become the Everest of its product category through its high-tech magic alone. Nor did it do so by hiring brilliant engineers, though it has many.

From the very beginning, co-founder and CEO Jim Goodnight’s goal was to create an organization that functioned as a partner with its employees. Knowing that competition for top software designers was fierce, the highly practical Goodnight was determined to have the best talent possible, which he planned to attract and keep by building a company committed to making the life/work balance easier for its people. It’s a place where employees are encouraged to live a balanced life. They create great software, work on cool projects, make good money, smoke the competition — and go home at 5:00 p.m. In other words, they live life in the sane lane.

The perks and benefits that Goodnight provides have become legendary, and they’re available to all fulltime employees in every department including landscaping and food service. If you’ve read or heard anything at all about the SAS story, then you probably remember the M&M’s — plain and peanut — delivered to employees every Wednesday without a hitch, a total of 22.5 tons per year. We aren’t exaggerating when we say the perks are too numerous to list. You’ll have to read GUTS! to learn more.

About SAS’ extraordinary culture, Goodnight once stated, “It’s the way it must be. [I want] an environment where people enjoy working, where ideas pour out of their heads and onto a computer screen.”

The success of SAS’ branded culture is reflected in the numbers. In 2002, SAS recorded sales of more than $1 billion — four times its revenues a decade earlier. The company now employs 9,000 people worldwide, up from 1,900 five years ago, and serves more than 40,000 customers in 118 countries.


The founder of Quad/Graphics, the late Harry Quadracci, felt education was so important that he often taught his company’s “Introduction to Printing” course. He encouraged any new employee who had not graduated from high school to earn an equivalency certificate. The company shows all employees how to make optimal use of their fringe benefits, and if they request it, it will also help them open checking and savings accounts. The goal is for each employee to develop a sense of responsibility, both to self and to the organization. Quad/Graphics wants people to understand the link between their fates and the company’s: If the enterprise thrives, so will they. Gradually, most of them grow into proud, motivated team members who give the company their hands, heads and hearts.

quad graphicsFor example, at Quad/Graphics each press crew is considered a profit center that signs its own entries in the company’s books. The manager of the crew — the “first pressman,” who may be as young as 24 — is required to keep daily tallies on production levels and down time. He or she also has a voice in hiring, firing and employee scheduling, and almost complete authority in the areas of cost containment, quality control and customer relations. Quadracci believed firmly that the chief executive’s role was to lay down sound principles, then walk away and let people do their jobs.


Employees work for their boss, right? Not if you work at Synovus Financial. James H. Blanchard, chairman and chief executive officer of Synovus, told us repeatedly that he works for his company’s people. His mission is to provide whatever they need to thrive, including inspiration, training, resources and peace of mind. Blanchard’s offbeat style is called “servant leadership,” a radical concept sweeping many successful businesses today. One of Blanchard’s rituals is a weekly meeting with a rock-the-boat agenda. First question at the meeting:

synovus logoWhat are the 25 dumbest things we do around here?

Servant leadership has delivered all sorts of benefits to Synovus’ employees — and to its bottom line. For a hint on the employee side, consider this: The corporation, which employs 10,400 people, consistently ranks high on Fortune Magazine’s list of “the 100 best companies to work for in America.” In 1999, it was number one. As for the bottom line, hear this: As of 2002, it had a market capitalization of $71 billion, assets of more than $20 billion, revenues of more than $1.7 billion and profits of $365 million. Challenged, dedicated employees and rock-solid financials — see a connection there?


Holzberger is a passionate environmentalist who has also created a truly supportive environment for his employees.

fredericsHis largely female workforce enjoys fitness facilities, aromatherapy, on-site daycare, an organic restaurant, scholarship programs, profit sharing, and Aveda investment opportunities along with generous bonuses, vacations and insurance. Few of them ever leave the company.

Holzberger knows that most of his people are performing a delicate balancing act between family, personal passions and work. He watches, listens and has the guts to help them in any way he can.


The important question is why does USAA deserve 95 percent of its market? For starters, it doesn’t sell its members anything they don’t need. It leverages technology to make it extremely convenient for members to do business with the company, and it frequently exceeds its members’ expectations. Bob Davis, chairman and chief executive officer, believes that it is because the company is committed to maintaining a sacred trust between USAA and its members. Davis told us, “What we have is a connection that no other company has.” He continued, “As a member, I never worried about [insurance issues] when I was in Vietnam because my wife always knew to call USAA if anything went wrong. . . . It’s like a marriage: The most important thing is trust, and we can never ever violate [it]. . . . If we do, it’s over.”

usaa logoUSAA’s Bob Davis knows it is virtually impossible to serve people well if you’re unfamiliar with their needs and lifestyles. As a result, his company goes to great lengths to help employees identify with their members. Every month, Davis holds a meeting with all of the company’s managers, which is broadcast via satellite to all employees of the entire organization.

One of the meeting’s highlights is a member video profile that describes his or her family’s daily life as accurately as possible. Davis, whose father was a U.S. Navy officer, was drafted into the Army and was eventually promoted to captain before he left the service. He is the most highly decorated combat veteran to have ever led USAA. Having experienced many of the significant events that are unique to the military, Davis has shared the passions and felt the concerns of his USAA members. He’s adamant about his employees understanding the impact of military life on members’ lives and how it indelibly defines their identities. That’s why he has gone to the trouble of discussing member profiles. He realizes how crucial it is that his employees make a connection with USAA members. “You can’t just tell someone about this,” Davis said. “They have to see it, feel it and become a part of it.”


GSD&M’s president and one of its founders, Roy Spence, is more than an advertising executive. He is a dreamer. Describing the conception of Idea City, gsdmSpence told us, “When my partners and I started out we learned everything grass roots. There was no Tom Peters, no one-minute manager. We’d never bought media or created ads. We didn’t know how to pay people or even what titles we should each take on. Instead, we focused on what we did have: common sense and good instincts. From the beginning, we sensed that what a company stands for is as important as what it sells [or] the services it provides…It was just a gut instinct over 30 years ago.” Based on that gut instinct, GSD&M has been helping clients brand their cultures ever since.

Planet Honda

Around Union, New Jersey, people know that Timothy Ciasulli, president and chief executive officer of privately held Planet Honda, has built an auto dealership that blows the doors off selling cars as usual, with annual revenues of almost $100 million. And he’s done it around two core principles: employees for life planet hondaand customers for life. For both groups, he’s accomplished the impossible—he’s made car-buying fun.

When he started Planet Honda in 1996, Ciasulli made sure that every aspect of the dealership, from sales to service, was designed for the customer’s convenience and pleasure. Instead of the usual defensiveness, the customer was to feel welcome, comfortable and in control of the car-buying experience. The result: customers for life.

To achieve employees for life, Ciasulli has had the guts to make their welfare his personal concern. Ciasulli told us. “The way I look at it is I have 150 shareholder families that I’m responsible for.” The attrition rate at Planet Honda is less than 1 percent annually. Ciasulli wants the dealership not only to be a great place to buy cars, but a place where employees can share their gifts and realize their dreams. Planet Honda has done a powerful job of branding itself as an employer of choice.

Planet Honda gives you a 100-percent guarantee that if it doesn’t fix your car right the first time, it will fix it again, then refund all your money. We screwed up so here’s your money back! It’s audacious, and only one of many things that differentiate Planet Honda from every other dealership out there. Tim Ciasulli insists on his service technicians’ accountability because he is passionate about the dealership’s accountability to its customers. Through interviews and focus groups, Ciasulli and his team learned that bringing the car back a second time for the same repair is at the top of a customer’s list of complaints. As Ciasulli told us, “It’s a complete waste of time, and time is money.” Planet Honda repairs 30,000 vehicles a year; these days, less than 1 percent of them return because the car wasn’t fixed right the first time.