Matthew LaWell

Wednesday, 26 May 2010 20:00

Creating a wellness program

Imagine an office where employees walk laps during lunch, their pedometers clipped to their waistbands, clicking off each step up and down the stairs and through the halls and around the cubicles. Imagine an office where employees snack on fruits and nuts rather than candy bars, where employees drink water instead of another can of soda, and where employees have managed to kick that pack-a-day habit.

Imagine an office where health and wellness are a priority.

Is this anything like your office? It should be. Perhaps it will be during the months and years to come.

There is little doubt that health and wellness are, if nothing else, a hot topic across the nation. Just turn on the television and watch a reality show about weight loss or any of what seems like a dozen syndicated talk shows where a photogenic doctor fields questions and concerns. Or pick up a magazine and read the features on wellness recently published in Time and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Or just turn your eyes to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama signed the health care reform legislation in late March.

Our parents are overweight. Our children are overweight. We are overweight. And as we work our way through the recession, our days are packed. We tend to eat poorly and not exercise or even move nearly enough. We are in the dregs of a pandemic. All of our poor decisions are costing not only our bodies and our minds but also our health care costs and our office productivity. A wellness program just might help to turn the overwhelming tide of fat and frustration.

“A wellness strategy is really a subset of a human capital strategy,” says Paul Martino, vice president, health and wellness solutions, WellPoint Inc. “I think if an employer has a long-term horizon and views human capital in a particular way — that it is valuable, that you want to retain your highly valuable and efficient people — you want to allow people to be at their job and functioning well.”

If you do not have a program up and running, pun intended, at your business, why should you bother to install one now? Or if you do have a program, why should you aim to improve it as we continue to move through 2010? Well, because plenty of research proves that healthier employees are more productive and actually cost you and your business less in total costs. Oh, and there is an impressive return on the investment, especially after a year or two.

But you have to plan and install the program first.

Take the first step

Are your employees overweight? Are they obese? Do they smoke? Not long ago, you would have been well within your rights to avoid the answers to any of those questions. If your employees worked hard and produced, who cared about their health? But after years of medical research, those are all important and relevant questions, and if the answer to any is yes, you will want to consider a wellness program.

But why do you want to install a wellness program?

There are no wrong answers, of course, but if there is no why, if there is no vision, the program will flounder. And if you and your executives do not support the program from its first breath, neither will your employees, so take the time to work with a private company for you and your employees to take a health risk assessment and a biometric screening.

“It’s important to step back and gather some data from the employees,” says Laura Poland, executive director, The Rite Bite. “Completing health risk appraisals with employees, and (finding) out what their health risks are and what’s going on in the workplace, that can reveal specific areas of interest that an organization should pursue.”

HRAs and biometric screenings highlight symptoms and conditions that might develop into larger problems in the future, both among individuals and your employee base as a whole. If you work with an outside company, the information will also be anonymous and in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

HRAs are often free, though if performed in person rather than on the Internet, they can cost between $5 and $25 per employee, depending on the quality and depth of the analysis. Biometric screenings typically cost anywhere between $50 and $150 per employee. You might also need to offer your employees an incentive, like a gift card or cash, for them to give their time to take the tests — because anything less than 70 to 80 percent participation leaves the results skewed and of less use for your business.

That cost might seem steep, but the information that is revealed can change your business. Do you want to know the overall health risk for your employees? Their weight and body mass index? Their exercise, nutrition and smoking habits? Even their levels of stress at work and at home? All those figures are available and can help lay the groundwork for what you need to know to start a wellness program.

Consider an outside company — and your employees

When you have the results of the HRAs and screenings, you’ll want to work with your insurance company to perform an annual claims review. At that point, you’ll be able to plan for the installation of a wellness program.

But you might not want to keep that plan under your own roof.

Because of compliance regulations and the general complexity of HIPAA laws, you might be better off turning to an outside company to ensure that your burgeoning program remains legal. After all, you already work with a law firm to handle your legal matters, an accounting firm to handle your numbers and a bank to keep everything in order, so why not work with professionals when it comes to the literal health of your business?

“You can use a combination of a third party coming in, but you still have to have representation throughout the business,” Poland says. “HR is actually a good partner in these programs, because they do have knowledge of everyone’s job in the business — they should be a big part of it.”

No matter your choice on that matter, your employees do need to feel a sense of inclusion in, perhaps even some sliver of ownership of, the program, so involve them as early as possible. Tell them about the program as you develop it, and if you build a wellness planning committee, make sure you bring in people from as many departments as possible. And when the program is prepared to launch, make sure you pass along that information well in advance.

“Employees are always thinking, ‘What’s in it for me? What is the benefit for me?’” Poland says. “You need to communicate that as part of any program you do, and you have to have good marketing behind anything you do. Be good about marketing to get the programs across.”

The key to increased participation is to offer an incentive, especially now as we continue to recover from recession and every little bonus bears the glint of gold. Perhaps your employees would react to paid time off or reduced premium costs. Both are common incentives, according to a panel of more than two dozen industry experts.

Monitor results and look forward

The fruits of an effective wellness program will take some time to develop and spread throughout your business. Just remember, when you start to work out or return to the gym, you don’t see a noticeable difference after one day or even after one week or one month. A wellness program is a lot like that trip to gym. Give it a couple of months to notice the first signs of change, a year to really see an improvement and a couple of years to watch as new habits spread from employee to employee.

Those new habits, of course, are part of the return on your investment. There are other intangible returns, too, including employee reports that they feel better and look better and now have a success story to tell their friends and family. But without hard numbers, all of those intangibles are nothing more than what one expert referred to as “warm fuzzies.”

Good thing a wellness program is far more than warm fuzzies. After a couple of months or a year or two, you can measure the collective pounds lost, the drop in body mass index, and the decrease in cholesterol and blood pressure levels. You can also measure the decreased rate of absenteeism because of injury or illness, improved productivity, and perhaps even lower figures for workers’ compensation claims and turnover rate.

“Where all the cost is in the system is for people who are at risk for either a chronic illness or acute episodes,” Martino says. “Those are the people who cost all the money, so if you point programs at them, it’s much easier to get a return on the investment. If you look at people who are your working well, generally about 80 percent of the population, those are the people who, because they aren’t sick and don’t have as high a risk for illness, they naturally have lower costs.

“It’s harder to get a return on a program that is intended to serve the entire population. The working well, if they’re not managing their health correctly, will end up in one of the other groups. People who are moving toward more sedentary lifestyles as they get older, those things will lead to the chronic and acute problems.”

And there are the dollar figures for the return on your investment. Those are as important as any number on any scale.

Similar to those first trips to the gym and those first months of the program, you should not expect to see any sort of large return during the first year or so. The program might pay for itself during that first year — thanks to employees being able to work more hours and to a possible decrease in health care costs — but you will likely have to wait until the second year, perhaps even early during the third year to see any real positive return.

“Some recent studies show that it takes two to three years to change the culture and to see solid results,” Poland says. “They also show that for every dollar invested, that nets about $3.50 in return per employee. Now, that is two or three years down the road.”

When that change starts to filter in, you might be surprised at what you see. Over time, the average wellness program will be worth about $3 toward your bottom line for every $1 you invest. Some experts say you can expect more than that, $5, $6 or even $8 for every $1 you invest. But $3 is a fair figure on which most experts agree.

“If you believe in the value of your human capital and you want to keep the people who are healthy now healthy in the future, then keep them engaged,” Martino says. “Keep them happy at work.”

Wednesday, 26 May 2010 20:00

Creating a wellness program

Imagine an office where employees walk laps during lunch, their pedometers clipped to their waistbands, clicking off each step up and down the stairs and through the halls and around the cubicles. Imagine an office where employees snack on fruits and nuts rather than candy bars, where employees drink water instead of another can of soda, and where employees have managed to kick that pack-a-day habit.

Imagine an office where health and wellness are a priority.

Is this anything like your office? Perhaps it will be during the months and years to come.

There is little doubt that health and wellness are, if nothing else, a hot topic across the nation. Just turn on the television and watch a reality show about weight loss or any of what seems like a dozen syndicated talk shows where a photogenic doctor fields questions and concerns. Or pick up a magazine and read the features on wellness recently published in Time and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Or just turn your eyes to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama signed the health care reform legislation in late March.

Our parents are overweight. Our children are overweight. We are overweight. And as we work our way through the recession, our days are packed. We tend to eat poorly and not exercise or even move nearly enough. We are in the dregs of a pandemic. All of our poor decisions are costing not only our bodies and our minds, but also our health care costs and our office productivity. A wellness program just might help to turn the overwhelming tide of fat and frustration.

“A wellness strategy is really a subset of a human capital strategy,” says Paul Martino, vice president, health and wellness solutions, WellPoint Inc. “I think if an employer has a long-term horizon and views human capital in a particular way — that it is valuable, that you want to retain your highly valuable and efficient people — you want to allow people to be at their job and functioning well.”

If you don’t have a program up and running — pun intended — at your business, why should you bother to install one now? Or if you do have a program, why should you aim to improve it as we continue to move through 2010? Well, because plenty of research proves that healthier employees are more productive and actually cost you and your business less in total costs. Oh, and there’s an impressive return on the investment, especially after a year or two.

But you have to plan and install the program first.

Take the first step

Are your employees overweight? Are they obese? Do they smoke? Not long ago, you would have been well within your rights to avoid the answers to any of those questions. If your employees worked hard and produced, who cared about their health? But after years of medical research, those are all important and relevant questions, and if the answer to any is yes, you will want to consider a wellness program.

But why do you want to install a wellness program?

There are no wrong answers, of course, but if there is no why, if there is no vision, the program will flounder.

“Do you want to build benefits? Or, as the management team, is your goal to affect claim costs? Is it a combination of the two?” says Sally L. Stephens, founder and president, Spectrum Health Systems, Indianapolis. “Senior management, or whoever initiates it, needs to ask what they want to accomplish by putting a wellness program in. Too many people think it’s a solution but don’t think through clearly what their goals are.”

And if you and your executives do not support the program from its first breath, neither will your employees, so take the time to work with a private company for you and your employees to take a health risk assessment and a biometric screening.

Those highlight symptoms and conditions that might develop into larger problems in the future, both among individuals and your employee base as a whole. If you work with an outside company, the information will also be anonymous and in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“Some employees hesitate to give all their personal information to the insurance company,” Stephens says. “They don’t want the insurance companies to know they smoke or any of these other things. Working with a third-party provider ensures 100 percent confidentiality. They manage all the data, they manage the security, and the employer doesn’t have to worry about the data management.”

HRAs are often free, though if performed in person rather than on the Internet, they can cost between $5 and $25 per employee, depending on the quality and depth of the analysis. Biometric screenings typically cost anywhere between $50 and $150 per employee. You might also need to offer your employees an incentive, like a gift card or cash, for them to give their time to take the tests — because anything less than 70 to 80 percent participation leaves the results skewed and of less use for your business.

That cost might seem steep, but the information that is revealed can change your business. Do you want to know the overall health risk for your employees? Their weight and body mass index? Their exercise, nutrition and smoking habits? Even their levels of stress at work and at home? All of those figures are available and can help lay the groundwork for what you need to know to start a wellness program.

Consider an outside company — and your employees

When you have the results of the HRAs and screenings, you’ll want to work with your insurance company to perform an annual claims review. At that point, you’ll be able to plan for the installation of a wellness program.

But you might not want to keep that plan under your own roof.

Because of compliance regulations and the general complexity of HIPAA laws, you might be better off turning to an outside company to ensure that your burgeoning program remains legal. After all, you already work with a law firm to handle your legal matters, an accounting firm to handle your numbers and a bank to keep everything in order, so why not work with professionals when it comes to the literal health of your business?

“Running these programs is difficult,” says Michael Nadeau, president and chief executive officer, Viverae Inc., Dallas. “There’s a lot of work that goes into coordinating it and making it all happen. And it’s just as easy to coordinate a program for 1,000 employees as it is for 50 employees. That’s why the spend tends to be a little higher per employee for smaller companies.”

No matter your choice on that matter, your employees do need to feel a sense of inclusion in —and perhaps even some sliver of ownership of — the program, so involve them as early as possible. Tell them about the program as you develop it, and if you build a wellness planning committee, make sure you bring in people from as many departments as possible. And when the program is prepared to launch, make sure you pass along that information well in advance.

The key to increased participation is to offer an incentive, especially now as we continue to recover from recession and every little bonus bears the glint of gold. Perhaps your employees would react to paid time off or reduced premium costs. Both are common incentives, according to a panel of more than two dozen industry experts.

“You need to show someone you’re thinking about their health,” Nadeau says. “This is where you need to provide the right information at the right time and at the right frequency, because you need to have specific programs designed for a specific population.”

Monitor results and look forward

The fruits of an effective wellness program will take some time to devel op and spread throughout your business. Give it a couple of months to notice the first signs of change, a year to really see an improvement and a couple of years to watch as new habits spread from employee to employee.

Those new habits, of course, are part of the return on your investment. There are other intangible returns, too, including employee reports that they feel better and look better and now have a success story to tell their friends and family. But without hard numbers, all of those intangibles are nothing more than what one expert referred to as “warm fuzzies.”

Good thing a wellness program is far more than warm fuzzies. After a couple of months or a year or two, you can measure the collective pounds lost, the drop in body mass index, and the decrease in cholesterol and blood pressure levels. You can also measure the decreased rate of absenteeism because of injury or illness, improved productivity, and perhaps even lower figures for workers’ compensation claims and turnover rate.

“Where all the cost is in the system is for people who are at risk for either a chronic illness or acute episodes,” Martino says. “Those are the people who cost all the money, so if you point programs at them, it’s much easier to get a return on the investment. If you look at people who are your working well, generally about 80 percent of the population, those are the people who, because they aren’t sick and don’t have as high a risk for illness, they naturally have lower costs.”

And there are the dollar figures for the return on your investment. Those are as important as any number on any scale.

Similar to those first trips to the gym and those first months of the program, you should not expect to see any sort of large return during the first year or so. The program might pay for itself during that first year — thanks to employees being able to work more hours and to a possible decrease in health care costs — but you will likely have to wait until the second year, perhaps even early during the third year to see any real positive return.

“Improvements in health can take a little longer,” Stephens says. “But what we say an employer should expect is stabilization of their health care claims within three to five years — meaning their claims will trend below industry average, assuming they don’t have a lot of outliers like cancer or automobile accidents, things that a wellness program isn’t really going to impact.”

When that change starts to filter in, you might be surprised at what you see. Over time, the average wellness program will be worth about $3 toward your bottom line for every $1 you invest. Some experts say you can expect more than that, $5, $6 or even $8 for every $1 you invest. But $3 is a fair figure on which most experts agree.

“If you believe in the value of your human capital and you want to keep the people who are healthy now healthy in the future, then keep them engaged,” Martino says. “Keep them happy at work.”

Thursday, 20 May 2010 20:00

Opening the vault

Stop for a minute or two and think back to what you learned about the banking industry during your childhood. Your parents probably introduced you to the concepts of deposits and checks and balances. You learned how to make the numbers work. Now think about what you learned about the industry during your years on campus and in the classroom. Some professor probably lectured to you about loans and liens and interest. You learned enough to earn a good grade and get out in the business world. And what did you learn about the industry after you established yourself in that world? You probably learned that a relationship with your banker is important, that surprises are bad and that communication is the key to just about everything.

 

Well, good. Keep all of that information in mind because so much of it remains relevant and important today. But so much more of the information that you learned during your childhood and your education and your years in business is now better left in the past, thanks to the lingering memories and results of the financial fiasco that rocked the economy for the better part of two years.

 

As we climb out of the fiscal wreckage of 2008 and 2009, the banking industry is in the middle of a new landscape. After what seemed like one bank sale, merger or closure after another, there are now fewer banks across the nation. And after thousands and thousands of businesses defaulted on their loans, banks of all sizes became more prudent in their lending practices.

 

The financial future continues to improve, but the present might be difficult for some business owners.

 

“There is an approach of going back to basics,” says Jeff Douglas, executive vice president, commercial banking, Fifth Third Bank. “Today, it’s really about cash flow, about margins, about how well you’re managing your expenses. From the banker’s side, it’s about cash flow coverage, about assets. We’re operating in a time of less uncertainty than we had six to nine months ago. There are still some issues out there that give people pause, but it feels like it’s at least stabilized. It doesn’t feel like it’s getting worse.

 

“Banks are in much better shape than they were. We’re out there; we’re looking for new business. But it’s all about that basic blocking and tackling, what the financials tell us and how the management teams have responded to the challenge. We are going back to basics in the way we’re trying to approach things.”

 

Ask the right questions

Communication with your bank and your banker is as important today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago — and, of course, with smart phones and the ability to talk almost immediately with just about anyone anywhere in the world at any time, communication has never been easier, either. But sitting down with your banker in person rather than over the phone remains the best and most effective means of communication, even if it might feel like some sort of lost art. That goes both ways, too; you should want to meet with your banker in person, but he or she should also want to meet with you.

 

“It is imperative for businesses to work closely with their banks to maintain healthy and productive companies,” says Todd Barnhart, senior vice president and manager of deposits, PNC Financial Services. “The better your bank knows you, the better they’ll know your business. It’s important to keep an open line of communication at all times, not just when it’s necessary to conduct your business. At the minimum, businesses should consider sitting down with their banker for an annual business review.”

 

It’s important for you to ask the right questions, too, especially if your bank merged with another bank during the recession or if it closed its doors and left you looking for a new bank.

 

For example, what will the bank offer you in terms of its resources? Will you work with one banker or with a team? As your business grows and changes, will the bank be able to help you meet your evolving needs? And how will the bank support you during your growth or expansion? Will the bank and your banker be proactive and visit your offices or locations in order to learn more about your company and provide trusted advice? Or will the bank offer nothing more than answers to your banking needs?

 

Think of that first conversation like a first date, of sorts. You want to learn as much as possible so you can determine whether to go out on a second date. If all goes well, maybe those dates will turn into a long-term relationship.

 

“There’s an increased emphasis on relationship, and the importance for a small business owner of having a relationship with the bank and not to view banking as a commodity, because when times get tough, you really need to have that relationship,” says Matthew R. Wyner, senior vice president, business banking, KeyBank. “From a banking standpoint, there’s been an increased emphasis on the importance of rolling up your sleeves, getting down in the trenches with customers and really understanding the challenges they’re facing and what they need to be doing to be successful.

 

“If a company is having challenges, if they’re being proactive in communicating that and making sure there are no surprises, those are the relationships we’re able to work the most effectively with.”

 

Prepare for economic change

On the surface, at least, the economy has started to turn. You need to look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics for proof of that. The unemployment rate either held or dropped each month from October 2009 through February, down to 9.7 percent from 10.1 percent. But talk with enough bankers and the picture comes into clearer focus.

 

Banks are still lending money. Banks want and need to lend money. It is, after all, one of their major sources of revenue. But according to a panel of experts, the number of loans and the amount of money requested during the last 12 months dropped significantly, and among the businesses that continued to request loans, more defaulted than normal. That led to banks examining financial statements and trends more closely. It also led to the perception that banks were holding onto their money.

 

“Obviously, bankers have gotten a rap in the press about not wanting to lend money to small businesses and not wanting to help small businesses,” Wyner says. “But I think the opposite is true. Many of my peers are actively out there looking for opportunities to work with people. I think there’s a greater sense of the importance of the relationship on both sides.”

 

Now, with fewer banks in the marketplace, some banks can be more selective. But most are actually more open now to lending and are more forgiving. Ask around and you might find that many are breaking down the last year of financial statements for businesses seeking a loan, examining each month in search of positive trends, rather than just glazing over negative numbers from the last two or three years. Other banks are adding business bankers. Still more have recently committed billions to small and medium businesses.

 

The time is right to work with your bank. Just ask.

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Opening the vault

Stop for a minute or two and think back to what you learned about the banking industry during your childhood. Your parents probably introduced you to the concepts of deposits and checks and balances. You learned how to make the numbers work. Now think about what you learned about the industry during your years on campus and in the classroom. Some professor probably lectured to you about loans and liens and interest. You learned enough to earn a good grade and get out in the business world. And what did you learn about the industry after you established yourself in that world? You probably learned that a relationship with your banker is important, that surprises are bad and that communication is the key to just about everything.

Well, good. Keep all of that information in mind because so much of it remains relevant and important today. But so much more of the information that you learned during your childhood and your education and your years in business is now better left in the past, thanks to the lingering memories and results of the financial fiasco that rocked the economy for the better part of two years.

As we climb out of the fiscal wreckage of 2008 and 2009, the banking industry is in the middle of a new landscape. After what seemed like one bank sale, merger or closure after another, there are now fewer banks across the nation. And after thousands and thousands of businesses defaulted on their loans, banks of all sizes became more prudent in their lending practices.

The financial future continues to improve, but the present might be difficult for some business owners.

“The economy has finally begun to stabilize,” says Rick Davis, Southern California division executive, Bank of the West. “It’s certainly not a strong economy, though it is in certain sectors, and we have seen the GDP rise. I think the confidence in certain sectors has improved quite a bit.

“We’re still cautious, but there are industries that are doing quite well. Our customers are now talking to us about needs, and they’re looking, perhaps for the first time, to do some expansion. This is only selected industries, but that is a change from six or nine months ago.”

Ask the right questions

Communication with your banker is as important today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago — and, of course, with smart phones and the ability to talk almost immediately with just about anyone anywhere in the world at any time, communication has never been easier, either. But sitting down with your banker in person rather than over the phone remains the best and most effective means of communication, even if it might feel like some sort of lost art.

“Customers change, the environment changes, the business changes, so the No. 1 thing I tell business owners is to take the time — if not once a quarter, at least twice a year — to go in and sit down with your banker,” says John Sotoodeh, regional president, Wells Fargo & Co. “Let them know your financial situation, let them know your business objectives, let them know what has changed. And, on the flip side, let the banker tell you what has changed with products, with services, with fees, with interest rates. There’s so much that happens in the industry that that communication is critical to our business customer’s success.”

It’s important for you to ask the right questions, too, especially if your bank merged with another bank during the recession or if it closed its doors and left you looking for a new bank.

For example, what will the bank offer you in terms of its resources? Will you work with one banker or with a team? As your business grows and changes, will the bank be able to help you meet your evolving needs? And how will the bank support you during your growth or expansion? Will the bank and your banker be proactive and visit your offices or locations in order to learn more about your company and provide trusted advice? Or will the bank offer nothing more than answers to your banking needs?

Think of that first conversation like a first date, of sorts. You want to learn as much as possible so you can determine whether to go out on a second date. If all goes well, maybe those dates will turn into a long-term relationship.

“We believe in relationships,” says Hugh Conners, senior vice president and group manager, Comerica Inc. “We are a relationship bank, and as in any relationship, whether it’s with a spouse or a friend or a bank, that consistent communication is important to keep it going. It goes both ways. It’s not just the customer communicating with the bank, it’s the bank communicating with the customer, as well — what our observations and thoughts are, what’s going on in the industry, in general, and in their industry, in particular.

“That means the customer should include the banker in their forward plans. Asking for early involvement is a good way to develop a strong relationship with your bank.”

Prepare for economic change

On the surface, at least, the economy has started to turn. You need to look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics for proof of that. The unemployment rate either held or dropped each month from October 2009 through February, down to 9.7 percent from 10.1 percent. But talk with enough bankers and the picture comes into clearer focus.

Banks are still lending money. Banks want and need to lend money. It is, after all, one of their major sources of revenue. But according to a panel of experts, the number of loans and the amount of money requested during the last 12 months dropped significantly, and among the businesses that continued to request loans, more defaulted than normal. That led to banks examining financial statements and trends more closely. It also led to the perception that banks were holding onto their money.

“The solid financial banks are really somewhat awash in liquidity because there hasn’t been a strong demand and people are holding onto their investments and their spending,” Davis says. “The banks certainly have money to lend. We have done very little in our underwriting changes; we’re certainly more diligent when it comes to real estate today, and we always take a look at the business, the business plan and the business numbers. As the economy continues to pick up steam and more businesses are improving earnings, I don’t think the banks’ willingness to lend will be a problem.”

Now, with fewer banks in the marketplace, some banks can be more selective. But most are actually more open now to lending and are more forgiving. Ask around and you might find that many are breaking down the last year of financial statements for businesses seeking a loan, examining each month in search of positive trends, rather than just glazing over negative numbers from the last two or three years. Other banks are adding business bankers. Still more have recently committed billions to small and medium businesses.

The time is right to work with your bank. Just ask.

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Opening the vault

Stop for a minute or two and think back to what you learned about the banking industry during your childhood. Your parents probably introduced you to the concepts of deposits and checks and balances. You learned how to make the numbers work. Now think about what you learned about the industry during your years on campus and in the classroom. Some professor probably lectured to you about loans and liens and interest. You learned enough to earn a good grade and get out in the business world. And what did you learn about the industry after you established yourself in that world? You probably learned that a relationship with your banker is important, that surprises are bad and that communication is the key to just about everything.

Well, good. Keep all of that information in mind because so much of it remains relevant and important today. But so much more of the information that you learned during your childhood and your education and your years in business is now better left in the past, thanks to the lingering memories and results of the financial fiasco that rocked the economy for the better part of two years.

As we climb out of the fiscal wreckage of 2008 and 2009, the banking industry is in the middle of a new landscape. After what seemed like one bank sale, merger or closure after another, there are now fewer banks across the nation. And after thousands and thousands of businesses defaulted on their loans, banks of all sizes became more prudent in their lending practices.

The financial future continues to improve, but the present might be difficult for some business owners.

“The real difference and the real litmus test to determine a good bank is that we are even more proactive about getting out and being in front of our business customers,” says Chuck Bowman, senior vice president, retail and business banking manager, Amegy Bank NA. “There are a lot of questions in their minds that aren’t even related to their banking relationship with us, questions that have more to do with the economy and with their outlook.

“Our customers want to sit down and talk about the challenges they’re faced with, and a lot of time, their challenges are our challenges. Banking is a business, too, and is faced with similar challenges.”

Ask the right questions

Communication with your bank and your banker is as important today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago — and, of course, with smart phones and the ability to talk almost immediately with just about anyone anywhere in the world at any time, communication has never been easier, either. But sitting down with your banker in person rather than over the phone remains the best and most effective means of communication, even if it might feel like some sort of lost art. That goes both ways, too; you should want to meet with your banker in person, but he or she should also want to meet with you.

“It’s unfathomable to me how a banker can say they can do a good job for a business owner when they don’t take the time to sit down and talk with a business owner face to face and understand what the business owner’s goals and objectives are and where they’re at,” Bowman says. “It’s important to have a banker who’s really more of a partner to really help you through those cycles.”

It’s important for you to ask the right questions, too, especially if your bank merged with another bank during the recession or if it closed its doors and left you looking for a new bank.

For example, what will the bank offer you in terms of its resources? Will you work with one banker or with a team? As your business grows and changes, will the bank be able to help you meet your evolving needs? And how will the bank support you during your growth or expansion? Will the bank and your banker be proactive and visit your offices or locations in order to learn more about your company and provide trusted advice? Or will the bank offer nothing more than answers to your banking needs?

Think of that first conversation like a first date, of sorts. You want to learn as much as possible so you can determine whether to go out on a second date. If all goes well, maybe those dates will turn into a long-term relationship.

“I view these relationships as very similar to our relationships at home: There’s a lot of good, and there’s some bad, too,” says Martin Brown, senior vice president, group manager North, Comerica Inc. “There are ups and downs. The main message we would like to project is that there are things we can help you with. Just ask. Whether that’s introducing you to someone, helping you with revenue opportunities, showing you ways to cut costs, communicating the latest business tools or showing you best practices in all stages of your business.”

Prepare for economic change

On the surface, at least, the economy has started to turn. You need to look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics for proof of that. The unemployment rate either held or dropped each month from October 2009 through February, down to 9.7 percent from 10.1 percent. But talk with enough bankers and the picture comes into clearer focus.

Banks are still lending money. Banks want and need to lend money. It is, after all, one of their major sources of revenue. But according to a panel of experts, the number of loans and the amount of money requested during the last 12 months dropped significantly, and among the businesses that continued to request loans, more defaulted than normal. That led to banks examining financial statements and trends more closely. It also led to the perception that banks were holding onto their money.

“If you went back two years and you looked at being able to obtain a loan, a prospective client had a lot of different options,” Brown says. “They had the large multinational banks, the large super-regional banks, all the way down to the community banks. Whenever we saw an opportunity in the marketplace, we had six or seven different competitors. Now we have maybe one or two.

“I don’t know if the prospective borrowers are not going to as many banks to get a bid or what. I wouldn’t say there’s less competition, it’s just different. The competition is acting different.”

Now, with fewer banks in the marketplace, some banks can be more selective. But most are actually more open now to lending and are more forgiving. Ask around and you might find that many are breaking down the last year of financial statements for businesses seeking a loan, examining each month in search of positive trends, rather than just glazing over negative numbers from the last two or three years. Other banks are adding business bankers. Still more have recently committed billions to small and medium businesses.

The time is right to work with your bank. Just ask.

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Automation domination

This is a short story about a wonderful return on investment. Everyone loves a return on investment, especially if that investment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There is a small manufacturing company in Arkansas that installed and implemented an enterprise resource planning system last year. The industry in which the company works is not particularly important. Neither is its geographic location. But the fact that the company, call it Company A for the purposes of this story, decided to move forward and install an ERP system is particularly important. It will change the fortunes of Company A in rather short order.

Prior to the installation and implementation of its ERP system, Company A shipped about $200,000 in inventory per week and it stored about five weeks worth of inventory in its warehouses. But executives at Company A figured there was a more efficient way to run the warehouses and, in turn, the business of the entire company.

So after months of research and planning, after working with a top technology firm, after moving forward to install that ERP system — and, in particular, a handheld wireless scanning system to better handle its inventory management — Company A did find a more efficient way. It was able to decrease its amount of stored inventory to about three weeks worth of items. That allowed Company A to free up about $400,000 in working capital, more than the total cost of investment in the ERP system. And that allowed Company A to restructure a large swath of the way it now does business.

What is ERP? You might know, but even if you have a grip on the technology, it has certainly changed since its introduction to the business world in 1990, and it has changed even more during the last couple of years.

“An ERP system offers the accounting aspect, but it also offers distribution, manufacturing, project accounting,” says Steve Chapman, solutions consultant, Rose Business Solutions Inc. “The term has been expanding quite a bit. Initially, it had more to do with distributors and manufacturers, and now it seems to be applied to any accounting system, distribution system, manufacturing system. One of the key pieces of an ERP system is that it’s all integrated.

“Now, people expect it all to be integrated.”

Plan, then plan some more

ERP is an integrated system that is used to manage the resources and automate the processes of a company. It can be used to automate and improve just about any process that deals with manufacturing, with supply chain management, with human resources, and with financials and data. It has been referred to as “the present of computing,” “the future of computing” and “an invaluable part of business” by a panel of experts and software developers and designers across the nation. There is a longer definition filled with more technical details, but if that doesn’t provide a sense of what ERP can do for your business, well, just read the simple success story of Company A one more time. Then take a long look at the processes in your own business.

“We’re seeing that there are a lot of people in an organization that would benefit from having access to an ERP system,” Chapman says. “You might have, say, salespeople who don’t need to know anything about accounts payable and they really don’t need to know that much about the sale, but they want to know particular information about their customers. We can deliver that information to them. Employees can do reporting on that in a secure way. And more and more of the reporting tools are user-based.”

The installation and implementation of an ERP system is neither an inexpensive nor a short project. The cost can vary depending on the number of your employees and the revenue size of your business, the depth and scope of the system you want to install, and the amount of training you want during the process. A simple system for a small business might cost less than $10,000. An average system might cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. A much larger system for a corporation that has thousands of users and stretches around the world might cost millions of dollars. But an average cost, especially for small and medium businesses, is somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 per end user, including the implementation, from the day you start installation to the day you are running live in production.

Similarly, the installation time varies based on multiple factors. For smaller systems, plan for at least three months, including end training. For larger systems, plan for at least six months to one year.

And the training is important. Consider it an insurance policy, of sorts, to make certain that your employees endorse the system and want to use it. If they reject it, you have not only wasted your money but have also taken a step backward toward different departments in your business speaking different technological languages.

“We think training is extremely important because the systems are pretty sophisticated,” Chapman says. “If people are well-trained, they won’t be frustrated, they’ll get a lot more value out of it, and they’ll take it further than the original implementations.”

Close your doors

Perhaps your largest concern with the decision to either install or upgrade your ERP system — other than the considerable investment of money and time — is security. Your data will not likely be susceptible to external hackers, even if you opt for cloud computing and store your data on a server outside of your offices, but there is always the concern that your own employees might attempt to tamper with the system.

The easiest way to minimize this risk is to assign each user a unique access name and password, much as you or your IT staff would for any office system of considerable size and importance, and allow each user access to only the parts of the system that he or she needs to use for his or her assignments. There are always concerns, but if you set up the security in advance, you will better protect your data and your business.

The other concern, especially after hearing the relatively sudden successes of Company A, is when you will earn back the money you put into the system. Depending on the speed of the installation and how quickly you and your employees implement the full range of process automation, you could see a full return within two years and perhaps even just one year. But the consensus is that ERP has evolved so much during the last couple of decades that it is a sound investment.

“When I meet with people, they sometimes come in with a bias,” says Erica Burles, founder and president, Equation Technologies. “They don’t know what ERP is, but if they just spend money, they will get some benefit. They know they have problems, but they don’t really know how to solve them. In the end, there is so much software and technology available, and you just need to figure out what areas of your organization are holding you back.”

ERP can, after all, help you improve the processes and efficiencies of your business, and it can change the way you do business. But you need to make the first move.

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Automation domination

This is a short story about a wonderful return on investment. Everyone loves a return on investment, especially if that investment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There is a small manufacturing company in Arkansas that installed and implemented an enterprise resource planning system last year. The industry in which the company works is not particularly important. Neither is its geographic location. But the fact that the company, call it Company A for the purposes of this story, decided to move forward and install an ERP system is particularly important. It will change the fortunes of Company A in rather short order.

Prior to the installation and implementation of its ERP system, Company A shipped about $200,000 in inventory per week and it stored about five weeks worth of inventory in its warehouses. But executives at Company A figured there was a more efficient way to run the warehouses and, in turn, the business of the entire company.

So after months of research and planning, after working with a top technology firm, after moving forward to install that ERP system — and, in particular, a handheld wireless scanning system to better handle its inventory management — Company A did find a more efficient way. It was able to decrease its amount of stored inventory to about three weeks worth of items. That allowed Company A to free up about $400,000 in working capital, more than the total cost of investment in the ERP system. And that allowed Company A to restructure a large swath of the way it now does business.

What is ERP? You might know, but even if you have a grip on the technology, it has certainly changed since its introduction to the business world in 1990, and it has changed even more during the last couple of years.

“There is a greater emphasis on having all of the data flow between the systems, to have the systems communicate with each other,” says Brian Terrell, founder and CPA, CodePartners, and managing partner and CPA, Terrell & Terrell CPAs LLP. “There’s a greater emphasis now than there used to be on systems that transfer data among all the different modules. It used to be more piecemeal. We would have three or four different systems and maybe even three or four different spreadsheets on top of that. That’s an opportunity for integration.”

Plan, then plan some more

ERP is an integrated system that is used to manage the resources and automate the processes of a company. It can be used to automate and improve just about any process that deals with manufacturing, with supply chain management, with human resources, and financials and data. It has been referred to as “the present of computing,” “the future of computing” and “an invaluable part of business” by a panel of experts and software developers and designers across the nation. There is a longer definition filled with more technical details, but if that doesn’t provide a sense of what ERP can do for your business, well, just read the simple success story of Company A one more time. Then take a long look at the processes in your own business.

“There has been a maturation process that businesses have gone through,” says Prasad Akella, vice president of SME Solution Marketing, SAP. “ERP is a commodity now, and businesses recognize that they need it and that they need to invest in it.”

The installation and implementation of an ERP system is neither an inexpensive nor a short project. The cost can vary depending on the number of your employees and the revenue size of your business, the depth and scope of the system you want to install, and the amount of training you want during the process. A simple system for a small business might cost less than $10,000. An average system might cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. A much larger system for a corporation that has thousands of users and stretches around the world might cost millions of dollars. But an average cost, especially for small and medium businesses, is somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 per end user, including the implementation, from the day you start installation to the day you are running live in production.

Similarly, the installation time varies based on multiple factors. For smaller systems, plan for at least three months, including end training. For larger systems, plan for at least six months to one year.

And the training is important. Consider it an insurance policy, of sorts, to make certain that your employees endorse the system and want to use it. If they reject it, you have not only wasted your money but have also taken a step backward toward different departments in your business speaking different technological languages.

“A lot of that training, despite our best intentions, ends on the day they go into production,” Terrell says. “It’s just human nature that unless we have to do something, we don’t focus on a change like we should. But we do get training done before we go live, and training will go on, because there will always be new editions of the software.”

Close your doors

Perhaps your largest concern with the decision to either install or upgrade your ERP system — other than the considerable investment of money and time — is security. Your data will not likely be susceptible to external hackers, even if you opt for cloud computing and store your data on a server outside of your offices, but there is always the concern that your own employees might attempt to tamper with the system.

“If you have an on-premise solution that you keep within the walls of your business, your security concerns are more internal in terms of access for your employees,” Akella says. “You don’t want the guy running your supply system to be able to cross over to your HR system.”

In other words, assign each user a unique access name and password, much as you or your IT staff would for any office system of considerable size and importance, and allow each user access to only the parts of the system he or she needs to use for his or her assignments. There are always concerns, but if you set up the security in advance, you will better protect your data and your business.

The other concern, especially after hearing the relatively sudden successes of Company A, is when you will earn back the money you put into the system. Depending on the speed of the installation and how quickly you and your employees implement the full range of process automation, you could see a full return within two years, and perhaps even just one year. But the consensus is that ERP has evolved so much during the last couple of decades that it is a sound investment, no matter your industry, business size or needs.

“There are going to be certain parts of the investment that will have an immediate impact, an immediate return,” Terrell says. “And it doesn’t take much, when you’re talking about numbers of that size, to pay off the whole thing.”

ERP can, after all, help you improve the processes and efficiencies of your business. And it can change the way you do business.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Strike up the brand

During the course of the last year, executives at a large company in one Midwestern city scheduled an event to thank their present clients for remaining with them through the recession and to reach out to potential clients in an effort to prepare for growth. They rented a hall in a beautiful building for the morning, hired a speaker with a prominent name and attracted a crowd of about 2,500 people.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps, you have even scheduled a similar event.

But as the event neared, the executives realized that they had a large problem. They had scheduled the event during the middle of the week, and with hundreds of thousands of other people already in the city, there was no parking anywhere near the building. So they scratched their heads. They worried. They wondered how they could have overlooked such a simple detail. They wondered how they might solve the problem. And only then did they call an event management firm.

When the recession started to rock the financial world in 2008, internal event management personnel were among the first to be laid off. Many then planted roots with independent firms or started firms of their own. Less than two years later, a December 2009 feature in U.S. News & World Report posited that a position as an event manager or event planner ranked among the 50 best jobs for 2010. The industry has transitioned and is positioned to grow a projected 16 percent between now and 2018.

That might be good news for you and your business, because the odds are high that, at some point, you will want to hold some sort of event, and unless you have an event manager on staff, you might find yourself in a situation every bit as sticky as those Midwest executives with thousands of guests and no parking spaces.

“Because companies are downsizing, the workload people have is so intense that they don’t have time to sit on a committee and plan an event or an awards ceremony,” says Tonya Shadoan, owner and president, Circle City Planners. “Money was being spent where it could have been saved.”

Plan in advance

Event managers are more than just party planners. In fact, those words are like nails on a chalkboard to many in the industry. Event managers aim to feature your message and work with you to help you reach your goals for each event. They are able to save you significant amounts of money and time, measure the returns on your investment, and, of course, coordinate an event that will be effective and leave your employees and clients talking.

“My philosophy is that happy employees are more productive,” Shadoan says. “People still expect some reward for their hard work, and they’re working harder now than before.”

Just look at those Midwest executives, for example. They worked hard to plan their own event, but during the 24 hours after they called the event management firm, the firm worked even harder and started to contact all of the event guests to relay the parking situation, then paid parking lot fees to ensure there would be available spaces somewhere within the city limits, hired buses and created a route to the building. All of that would have taken weeks if an internal employee with little event management experience had handled the task. It took the firm a couple of days. On the morning of the event, those thousands of guests parked at remote lots and were shuttled a couple of miles on city roads. It was hardly ideal, but it worked.

It also cost the company an extra $20,000.

“People are so scared to spend money because of their stockholders asking, ‘How are you throwing this lavish party for $100,000 when we’re trying to lay people off and trying to tighten our budget?’” Shadoan says. “When you show them the overall picture, they can see how much money they need. It’s not so much about how much time you can save but about money, about negotiating with the vendors.”

Because event management firms direct so much business and so many sales to those vendors, in addition to hotels and venues, they often receive a discount somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, which they normally pass along directly to you. Their knowledge of your city — and the state, nation and world, for that matter — allows them to track down the lowest prices in a matter of hours or minutes, as opposed to days or weeks.

There are four primary reasons to work with an event management firm. First, many businesses no longer have the internal resources necessary to handle events. Second, companies often need fresh ideas for old events, and an objective pair of eyes can provide those new thoughts. Third, it does simplify your work. And fourth, you will save a little more money in the end, even if you spend a little more at the beginning.

“Businesses that contract out for specific services save money by eliminating the employee overhead costs, such as salaries and benefits,” says Shannon Gardner, president, Accent on Indianapolis.

Open your doors

Just as with any business partner who provides value-added services — your attorney, your accountant, your banker — you need to develop a relationship with your event management firm. It is not enough to call once and spend a couple of minutes determining when and where you should hold the annual sales meeting.

The more your firm knows about you and your business, the more it will be able to implement continuity in your events from one year to the next. The firm will also be able to understand how each event fits in the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“Maintaining an ongoing relationship with an event management firm can be beneficial and help save time and costs in the long run,” Gardner says. “With continuous communication and feedback, the planner can become more familiar with the business’s goals, both long and short term. We become familiar with the likes and dislikes of the attendees and won’t have to reinvent the wheel for each event.”

Event management firms can help keep you up to date on newer technology, too. Online event registration has proved popular during recent years because of low costs and the relative ease with which event attendees can sign up. Virtual events are also popular, especially now that travel budgets are reduced and fewer people are flying extensively. And social media is gaining momentum. Event management and social media work hand in hand. Whether promoting an event or a product launch, many event managers embrace the technology because of its ability to all but eliminate marketing costs while also reaching a far wider potential audience.

“The communication, because we all are so busy, is key,” Shadoan says. “I had someone from California contact me the other day through Twitter. He wanted me to go out there and give him an estimate on a project. Companies are communicating with their employees through all of those social forums.”

The world is smaller. Your events might be, too, but keep holding them. Maintain your public image. The business world, after all, might not be a party right now, but it is an event not to be missed.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Preventing the exodus

Week after uncomfortable week, Donald Trump leaned across the edge of his famous boardroom table, his hands locked together, his lips curled in a sneer, and stared some poor sucker right out the door. During eight seasons of his reality television show, “The Apprentice,” Trump has mastered the ability to pound out the two words that no employee, not even a contestant eager for fame and fortune, wants to hear.

You’re fired.

As has been the case so many times during the last couple of decades, Trump proved to be far ahead of the curve. He mastered the fine art of the fire long prior to the start of our current recession, long prior to millions of workers hearing the same words, more or less, as that unfortunate contestant on the other side of the table. But perhaps Trump — and you — will not need to utter those words as often this year as you did last year.

The national unemployment rate dropped to 10 percent in November 2009 from 10.2 percent in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure, however slight, represents enough of a drop to provide some glimmer of hope to human resources and human capital experts across the nation and some hope that the start of a long recovery will soon be under way.

“This is providing an opportunity to step back, re-evaluate and reset the human capital agenda,” says Jan Rose, market business leader for human capital, Mercer LLC. “Everything is up for examination. Many of our clients are reviewing the effectiveness of all their human resources programs and assessing whether the programs are having the effect they want it to have for their investment.”

All of which means that, after a long and frustrating year filled with layoffs, wage freezes, the elimination of bonuses and perks, and the addition of more assignments for employees already under stress, the economy — and the human resources industry — might start to take a turn for the better at some point this year. Challenges do remain, of course, but there is hope.

Whenever the figures and charts tick upward, the time to move will be as soon as possible. Will you be prepared?

Focus on your top employees

The challenges throughout the last year focused on how to maintain the revenue, trim the budget and retain as many employees as possible. Almost every business of every size lost something and, more important, somebody — as evidenced by that aforementioned unemployment rate, which has increased during almost every month since April 2008.

You might still need to trim your budget, but you will also need to focus on identifying and retaining your high-performance and high-potential employees. So often, those employees might think the grass is greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. But what about when the grass is brown? What about when there is no grass? Heck, forget the grass, what about when there is no fence? They remain where they are for as long as necessary, as they are doing now because there are so few available positions in the marketplace.

Then they leave.

That is, at least, the consensus among dozens of human resources and human capital experts.

“Everybody recognizes that you need to be careful about expenses in this kind of economy,” says Bruce Barge, market leader and principal, Buck Consultants LLC. “But don’t cut your spending on innovation, don’t cut your spending on the kinds of training that allow people to develop the sort of skills that grow the company, don’t hire people who are just average because that’s about all you think you can afford. People pay attention to that and to the message from leadership.”

The process of retaining those high-performance and high-potential employees has already started, with your top workers likely influenced by how you handled the fallout from the shock of the recession. If you handled layoffs with dignity, communicating why decisions were made and what they meant for the future, that helped — so did any revenue investment in those top workers, from compensation and bonuses to training programs and seminars. And if you talked with those top workers and relayed to them where they fit in the vision for your business, that would have been about the best thing you could have done.

“One thing we’re beginning to understand that is really important, perhaps the most important thing, is to have employees feel connected to their sense of purpose in the organization,” Barge says. “There’s more and more research showing that’s the most important motivator. Not that compensation and other more traditional motivators aren’t important, but what really matters, especially for your highest-performing employees, is that sense of purpose. They want to feel like what they do makes a difference.”

Develop and share your plan

In addition to identifying and targeting your high-performance and high-potential employees to prepare for a future of healthy economics, you should develop a plan to address possible human resources challenges and plot the path you want your business to follow during the next couple of years.

Chief among your objectives for that plan should be the development of a balance between continued cost reduction and simultaneously positioning for growth. During the last year, many companies have aimed to manage and contain all costs related to human resources and human capital because they have been trying to do little more than survive. Survival is important, but it is also important to not damage the viability of your business in the big picture, well beyond these few years and even beyond this new decade.

Once you develop your plan, share it with your employees, especially your key employees. That advice might sound obvious, but experts say that too many business owners fail to relay information to their managers and their employees. And even in a good environment, employees who only hear about meetings behind closed doors and have no idea what is happening — and what is about to happen — will often speculate incorrectly, either causing additional stress or inadvertently spreading incorrect information. In short, you can still have those meetings behind closed doors, just be sure to share what is said on the other side of the oak.

“Business is driven by entrepreneurial people, not necessarily management, and although it seems logical, communication sometimes falls by the wayside because they’re going at a rapid pace and that tends to fall to the backburner,” says Mistee Torres, director of human capital consulting for Southern California, TriNet Group Inc. “Especially in this economy, it is really important to make sure employees know where the business is — because people already have a heightened awareness of their future and where they stand in the business.”

Communication is a key to developing a successful human resources department, either internally or by bringing in an outside firm. You want your employees aware of what is happening in your business, and you want them to be engaged.

“Motivating employees is key for employers now, especially because employees need to realize that what they do affects the overall success of the organization,” Torres says. “Keeping people motivated is important, especially during a time like this.”

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Preventing the exodus

Week after uncomfortable week, Donald Trump leaned across the edge of his famous boardroom table, his hands locked together, his lips curled in a sneer, and stared some poor sucker right out the door. During eight seasons of his reality television show, “The Apprentice,” Trump has mastered the ability to pound out the two words that no employee, not even a contestant eager for fame and fortune, wants to hear.

You’re fired.

As has been the case so many times during the last couple of decades, Trump proved to be far ahead of the curve. He mastered the fine art of the fire long prior to the start of our current recession, long prior to millions of workers hearing the same words, more or less, as that unfortunate contestant on the other side of the table. But perhaps Trump — and you — will not need to utter those words as often this year as you did last year.

The national unemployment rate dropped to 10 percent in November 2009 from 10.2 percent in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure, however slight, represents enough of a drop to provide some glimmer of hope to human resources and human capital experts across the nation and some hope that the start of a long recovery will soon be under way.

“This is providing an opportunity to step back, re-evaluate and reset the human capital agenda,” says Jan Rose, market business leader for human capital, Mercer LLC. “Everything is up for examination. Many of our clients are reviewing the effectiveness of all their human resources programs and assessing whether the programs are having the effect they want it to have for their investment.”

All of which means that, after a long and frustrating year filled with layoffs, wage freezes, the elimination of bonuses and perks, and the addition of more assignments for employees already under stress, the economy — and the human resources industry — might start to take a turn for the better at some point this year. Challenges do remain, of course, but there is hope.

Whenever the figures and charts tick upward, the time to move will be as soon as possible. Will you be prepared?

Focus on your top employees

The challenges throughout the last year focused on how to maintain the revenue, trim the budget and retain as many employees as possible. Almost every business of every size lost something and, more important, somebody — as evidenced by that aforementioned unemployment rate, which has increased during almost every month since April 2008.

You might still need to trim your budget, but you will also need to focus on identifying and retaining your high-performance and high-potential employees. So often, those employees might think the grass is greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. But what about when the grass is brown? What about when there is no grass? Heck, forget the grass, what about when there is no fence? They remain where they are for as long as necessary, as they are doing now because there are so few available positions in the marketplace.

Then they leave.

That is, at least, the consensus among dozens of human resources and human capital experts.

“When the economy turns around, and we all believe it will, and jobs become more available, employers will have to ask themselves what they have done to ensure that the people who are important to their success are going to stay with them, that they are engaged, that they are motivated and that they are committed to the organization,” says Thomas Grass, senior consultant, Towers Watson. “Because what they don’t want is to be in a position where they have their employees right now, but as soon as things turn around, those employees say, ‘Good, I made it through that. Now let me go and find a good job.’”

The process of retaining those high-performance and high-potential employees has already started, with your top workers likely influenced by how you handled the fallout from the shock of the recession. If you handled layoffs with dignity, communicating why decisions were made and what they meant for the future, that helped — so did any revenue investment in those top workers, from compensation and bonuses to training programs and seminars. And if you talked with those top workers and relayed to them where they fit in the vision for your business, that would have been about the best thing you could have done.

“Communication is really a key to getting employee commitment and engagement,” Grass says. The businesses that achieve the most internal success with employees are those who “really work hard with communicating with employees, that talk with employees about where we’re headed, why we’re headed there, what decisions we’re making, how we’re going about getting over these hurdles, what’s our long-term view, on and on and on. What employers can be doing is working real hard with employees in terms of what they’re doing, what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Develop and share your plan

In addition to identifying and targeting your high-performance and high-potential employees to prepare for a future of healthy economics, you should develop a plan to address possible human resources challenges and plot the path you want your business to follow during the next couple of years.

“With all of the downsizing, when the economy ramps up again, will businesses be in a position to step up, to be ready and to be proactive when they need to be?” Rose says. “The firms we’re working with that are doing this well are trying to get ahead of their competitors, thinking about innovative ways to manage that pipeline, so that they don’t lose their staff and are ready to ramp up when they need to be.”

Chief among your objectives for that plan should be the development of a balance between continued cost reduction and simultaneously positioning for growth. During the last year, many companies have aimed to manage and contain all costs related to human resources and human capital because they have been trying to do little more than survive. Survival is important, but it is also important to not damage the viability of your business in the big picture, well beyond these few years and even beyond this new decade.

Once you develop your plan, share it with your employees, especially your key employees. That advice might sound obvious, but experts say that too many business owners fail to relay information to their managers and their employees. And even in a good environment, employees who only hear about meetings behind closed doors and have no idea what is happening — and what is about to happen — will often speculate incorrectly, either causing additional stress or inadvertently spreading incorrect information. In short, you can still have those meetings behind closed doors, just be sure to share what is said on the other side of the oak.

Communication is a key to developing a successful human resources department, either internally or by bringing in an outside firm. You want your employees aware of what is happening in your business, and you want them to be engaged.

“I want someone who knows where we’re going as an organization and who knows how they’re helping us get there,” Grass says. “That’s engagement.”