Loyalty Is a Two-way Street at D.A. Stuart

Although the organization already has high loyalty, its management team is continuously revamping things to keep that commitment strong.

November 1, 1998
To hear Mike Agase talk about loyalty at his firm, you’d think he was talking about his extended family, not his workforce. Agase, the HR manager for D.A. Stuart, a 130-year-old, German-owned, specialty chemical firm based in Warrenville, Illinois, says loyalty at his company is high -- more than 50 percent of their 250 U.S. employees have worked there more than 10 years. Some boast tenures of 20 years or more. That’s pretty intense devotion in today’s noncommittal business world.

Although the organization already has high loyalty, its management team is continuously revamping things to keep that commitment strong and has made some very conscious decisions around staffing, development and culture -- and its HR mission in relation to those areas -- that have resulted in both long-term and short-term successes. For example, over the past couple of years, the company has focused on retention, not just recruitment, and has reduced its turnover rate by 50 percent from 15 percent to 7 percent. “The way we’ve done that is we’ve really made a great effort to treat people with tremendous respect,” says Agase. “We take a genuine interest in the people who work for us.” And that company interest ranges from the professional to the personal.

On the development side, the firm encourages employees -- many of whom are chemists and scientists -- to direct their own careers, and get company help to do so. “We find out what people want to do, and try to find ways to develop them to do those things,” says Agase.

Along the communication line, he says the company has recently started paying more attention to communicating better. Senior managers realized people need more information about the big picture. “Now we’re educating our employees more each day on what we do, how we do it and what we need to do to be as successful as we can,” Agase explains. “And they need to [know] this isn’t just a place to come to work, but it’s a place to come to succeed.”

The HR team has built a feedback and evaluation system -- beyond the performance review -- in which employees provide feedback after each project or each work cycle about how the project or process went. They talk about what went wrong, what went right and the changes they’d suggest making to help the process go more smoothly the next time. “In the teaming environments we get involved in, we need feedback to constantly tweak and improve what we’re trying to do,” says Stuart. “And we need them to evaluate how our business vision is going.”

And they’re communicating better with workers one-on-one. Their people needed to know that their contributions do make a difference. Managers are encouraged to sit with workers at least 15 minutes each week to have meaningful dialogue. “It’s a lost art,” says Agase. “People want to know if they’re doing a good job. They need to know they’re special and that their efforts are appreciated.” This strategy has painted a portrait of employee satisfaction. Proof of that came two years ago when the firm moved its headquarters to a new $6 million facility 20 miles from where it used to be. All but one employee decided to stay with the firm after the move.

So, how does D.A. Stuart compete with the Amocos and Chevrons of the world for talent -- and keep them? “I really believe our advantage is that we’re a family,” says Agase, realizing it sounds like a cliche. He adds that it all starts at the top: “My boss, Jim Castle, president and CEO, is a very people-oriented person and cares deeply about the employees of this company and their families. And we don’t just say we care. We prove it.”

Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 77, No. 11, p. 38.