Online Extra: How Baird Keeps Its Balance

The financial-services firm is a leader in providing employees with work/life-balance options. CEO Paul Purcell explains the benefits

During Paul Purcell's 18 years as an investment banker and subsequently managing director of Kidder Peabody's Chicago office, he was an eyewitness to a what he describes as a "great corporate culture." But he ended up leaving in 1994. "I wanted to control my own destiny," he says.

He went to Robert W. Baird & Co., the Milwaukee-based financial-services firm where he's now president and chief executive officer. "One of my priorities was to promote and emphasize work/life programs and policies," says Purcell. "The reason I pushed this was because, to me, it's a business strategy to retain and attract the very best. It's not just something nice to do."

Recently Milwaukee Magazine and The Management Assn., a Milwaukee-based employer group with 2,200 member companies in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, named Baird as one of the best places to work.

Purcell himself practices what he preaches: He commutes 180 miles round-trip from his suburban Chicago home in a van equipped with a wireless computer, fax, printer, and e-mail, plus three cell phones, a refrigerator, and a TV.

Why the commute? "I didn't want to uproot my family," he says. "Everyone lives within 25 miles of one another. My time in the van is very frequently more productive than the office. No one knocks on my door, when I'm traveling 65 mph."

He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Chicago-based correspondent Ann Therese Palmer about his philosophy of work/life balance. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

How much of a challenge is it to give employees flexibility when most of them must work somewhat fixed hours, when the markets are open for example?

Baird's culture puts a high value on empowering associates to prioritize and manage their workload in order to achieve an optimal work/life balance. Associates value this, with more than 70% reporting they strongly agree or agree they have the flexibility they need to balance work and personal commitments, according to a recent Associate Opinion Survey.

The prevalence of flexible work arrangements throughout the firm actually gives Baird more coverage and associate accessibility across time zones, rather than the typical workplace that follows a traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule.

What are some of Baird's innovative work/life-balance programs?

Baird was featured in a case study in Bob Nelson's latest edition of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees for some of its innovative programs. One branch told associates to reserve time for a mandatory compliance meeting and instead showed a comedy movie and [served] snacks. Another had Christmas-in-July festivities for the whole family at a branch office. One branch had a putt-putt golf match.

When we hire a new financial adviser, that adviser is eager to get his business transferred to our firm. We have a team of people -- the transition team -- that are there solely to acclimate the advisers to Baird culture, people, processes, and technology. Sometimes it takes weeks. We allow the transition team to invite their spouses or significant others to join them on the weekends, when they're on these long assignments.

Does Baird have any fixed policies about contacting employees via cell phone, e-mail, or BlackBerry while they're on vacation?

We don't have any explicit policies. However, our culture is respectful and supportive of associates' desire and need to take time off without interruption. Cross-training within teams ensures coverage during such an absence.

Nonetheless, many managers do check in occasionally while they're out -- often for their own peace of mind. If they appear to be working more than they should while they're off, it's not unusual for a colleague to good-naturedly remind them they're on vacation.

Does Baird have any fixed policies about encouraging people to take vacations?

Close to yearend, we run a firmwide Paid Time Off report. Managers of associates who have a significant amount of unused time remaining encourage those associates to take time off.

Included in our firm's policy is the ability to carry over up to five days of paid time off per calendar year -- any additional days might be lost. This offers a tremendous incentive for associates to take time off.

How many use alternative-workday programs or other options?

In every department, we have employees who work out of their homes so they can accommodate their family schedules.

I estimate that more than 40% of Baird's workforce has a flex-work arrangement. This may include compressed work weeks, flexible schedules and hours, and job-sharing. At least 30% of our employees utilize home offices or remote offices. And that's a conservative number. We also allow associates to transfer to a different branch or office location to be close to family.

Some companies are reluctant to make many work/life programs available to employees because they're afraid it will hurt the bottom line. What's your experience?

Since implementing our programs, we have tripled Baird's revenues, increased profitability more than three times, and turned a regional brokerage firm into a national and international investment-banking and investment-management firm. We have increased our employee ownership from 20% to 93%.

Are you considering any additions to Baird's work/life programs?

We've recently learned that one of our employees still has family members missing in the Katrina aftermath. We're considering starting an employee distress fund to disburse to folks who have an incredible need.

We're also considering establishing a paid time-off bank. Employees can donate time that they don't use to employees who have extenuating circumstance -- either a family medical emergency or issues involving an aged parent out-of-town.

Patricia O'Connell

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