October 10, 2014

Turning staff loyalty into a competitive advantage

BRW named brand promotion business, Zinc, one of the top 10 ‘great places to work’. Believing the commitment and loyalty of his team has been fundamental to Zinc's success, Peter Cleary shares his secrets for keeping good people by creating great workplace culture.

Brand promotion business, Zinc, has been growing exponentially – but how did a business named by BRW as one of the top 10 ‘great places to work’ increase its revenue from zero to over $25 million in just nine years?

Peter Clearly believes the commitment and loyalty of his team has been fundamental to Zinc’s success. “I wanted to create the kind of place I’d always wanted to work,” Cleary says. “Our goal was for people to want to work for us and stay with us, and then build that into the culture that would give us a competitive advantage.”

When Cleary started Zinc, he didn’t have a formalised retention policy – though the very first business plan did have the financials at the back and company culture at the front. And he believes that managing culture to this degree isn’t just a good strategy but the only strategy. “Every business is trying to create sustainable competitive advantage,” he says. “But unless you have a patent or some other sort of industry advantage, which very few businesses do, you can only be sustainable if you have the right people.” And, as Zinc’s track record shows, having and keeping the right people provides your customers with the best outcomes.

“The key thing we work on is client satisfaction, which is reflected in revenue and gross profit,” says Cleary. “That’s been increasing each year since we started and I don’t think we could’ve achieved the growth we’ve had for seven years if we didn’t have such a high rate of retention.”

This year, Zinc achieved 9th place in the 2014 BRW Best Places to Work Study (companies under 100 employees) conducted by Great Place to Work Australia.

How Cleary keeps good people with great workplace culture

1.    Bring your team to the front of the line

Before Zinc, Cleary worked in large publicly-listed companies where he was already questioning the traditional model he describes as “shareholders first, clients in the middle, then the people we call staff somewhere down at the back”.

Cleary explains: “I thought we should start with the people and let’s not call them staff, let’s call them team members. Happy, challenged team members will do good work that’ll keep your clients satisfied, and the benefits for shareholders and other stakeholders will flow on from there.”

2.    Recruit people with similar values

Instead of paying commissions, Cleary decided to invest more time in recruiting people with similar values who’d respond to intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. By taking this approach, the commission his team members expect to earn elsewhere is built into their regular salary.

“The policy is a bit like an iron fist in a velvet glove,” he says. “If, after six or 12 months you’re not able to meet the requirements that come with the remuneration you’re receiving, the fit here isn’t strong and you probably need to work somewhere else.”

3.    Allow your team to grow with your business

As career path is one of the strongest factors to influence, Cleary made business growth a retention strategy. “When a business continues to invest in growth, people stay interested because they can develop with the organisation,” he says.

Zinc now has two offices in Australia, two in China and one in New Zealand. “While we’ve been looking to exploit good growth opportunities for the business, this is also a way of holding on to people that we really don’t want to lose,” he continues.

However, growing the business isn’t a strategy Cleary plans to pursue indefinitely. “Zinc could probably be two or three times the size it is now but I’ve learned from past experience that it’s very difficult to maintain a monoculture in a $200 million organisation,” he says. “There may be a dominant culture but inevitably a number of subcultures will develop so the whole thing becomes much harder to manage,”

4.    Introduce non-financial benefits

Cleary has also established the Zinc advantage program – an extensive list of non-financial benefits to motivate staff.

The statutory four weeks’ holiday increases to six over a five-year period, team members get their birthday off, along with two days for anything needing to be done during work hours, such as visiting the dentist or attending a special event at  their kid’s school. “People take those days off anyway so we’d rather give them a way of doing it legitimately,” he says. “Like any decent culture ours is built on trust so we try to make it easy for people to do the right thing.”

Zinc also offers its team members many personal and professional development opportunities, good deals on everything from mortgages to mobile phones, and even free breakfasts. How does Cleary justify the cost? “We’ve saved a lot of money on recruitment and training, particularly retraining, and we’ve never had a Workcover claim so our premiums are relatively low,” he says.

This article was published in Business View magazine (Summer 2013). For more Business View magazine articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition for free via our app, NAB Think.

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