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A penchant for passion Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002
Through the window of the lunchroom, behind a brick patio and across a worn patch of grass, a tiny break in the trees is the only indication of one of Kinetico’s most unusual employee benefits.

The Newbury-based business, which manufactures water treatment systems, sits on nearly 160 acres in a largely wooded area. A few years ago, several employee volunteers built a nature trail that weaves through an undeveloped part of the property. The trail is just one of the many perks owners of the 30-year-old Kinetico offer to keep their 340 employees happy.

Kinetico was recently recognized for its intangible benefits as one of the Northcoast 99, named one of best places to work in the region.

“They wrote the book on how to treat people with respect and dignity and trust,” says Judith E. Sedivy, vice president of human resources, about the company’s founders.

But it’s not just superior employee benefits that separate Kinetico from other companies. It’s the attitude of those employees.

When the trail was finished, company management called a special meeting to introduce it. Volunteers were stationed along the pathway, and as employees entered the woods, they were handed a bag. At spots along the way, they were given another item to add to their bags. When their tour of the trail was over, employees had a complete lunch in their bags.

In the company’s lunchroom, shared by everyone in the building — there is no executive dining area — is a rack with candy bars and snacks. A money box sits on the top shelf for employees to deposit their coins. Chairman and CEO Bill Prior refuses to put vending machines in the building, asserting that there must be an element of trust or things will begin to fall apart.

Trust, he says, starts at the top and filters down, throughout the organization.

“Kinetico is successful because of its people,” says James W. Kewley, co-founder and executive vice president. “Our people are our most important asset.

While many organizations proudly champion their perks as exposition of the company culture, Prior is careful not to allow those trappings to become the focus. For him, culture is not defined by the extras, but by the passion for the job that allows those extras to be offered. It’s an important distinction, so much so that Prior authored “A Statement of Culture: The Core of Kinetico’s Heritage and Future.”

In it, he writes, “There is a confusion here as to what the Kinetico corporate culture is. People frequently comment that the corporate culture of Kinetico has to do with a comfortable lifestyle, company luncheons and social interaction, personal freedom, casual dress and a general lack of stress, focus, accountability and pressure ... We have Thanksgiving bonuses, big Christmas food bags with tree ornaments, and the officers go to Canada in the summer.

“But I don’t see all this as essential to our culture. It is fun. It is our personality ... So what is the corporate culture that I am committed to? I would say it is a culture of passion.”

Prior knows his employees relate to those intangible benefits, such as Popsicles on a hot summer day, but his goal is to remind them where it all originates.

“If there’s anything I’d really like to do,” he says, “it’s to have them focus on that culture of passion. We have a lot of the structure that allows the passion to continue.”

Prior admits there was more excitement when the company was located “in a two-car garage,” and a derivative of growth is an inevitable decrease in passion. Not every employee can deliver with the same energy as the company’s founders, but it doesn’t mean they don’t try.

“The real challenge is to try to figure out how to retain a culture of passion in a company as it grows,” he says.

Prior offers one last reason to be cautious about touting the extras.

“When you have the luxury of all the fancy trappings,” he says, “you probably aren’t working hard anymore.”

How to reach: Kinetico Inc., (440) 564-9111 or on the Web at www.kinetico.com

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN.

Laughing at work

There’s one intangible benefit that you’ll be hard pressed to easily describe: Does your workplace allow employees to have fun at work? Is it even a goal?

A study conducted by HR consultant William M. Mercer Inc. found that more than one-third of employers say their organizations encourage having fun on the job. While most employers (63 percent) take a neutral approach to humor in the office (they leave it up to manager discretion), nearly two-thirds of respondents say they believe encouraging fun or humor in communication/management style benefits employees and the organization as a whole. Of those people:

  • 55 percent say fun/humor reduces workplace stress;

  • 34 percent say it increases job satisfaction;

  • 28 percent say it stimulates creativity and innovation;

  • 24 percent say it strengthens employee loyalty;

  • 22 percent say it improves customer service;

  • 16 percent say it increases productivity.