Homeowners Choice Inc. had just taken on a big chunk of business that required mailing 60,000 policyholders. While the initial mailings were handled by another company, the returns, such as undeliverable letters or return correspondences, caused a problem: Nobody’s job description included opening letters.
“But when that challenge arose, people said, ‘Hey, I have time on my hands, I can help out for a couple hours,’” says Paresh Patel, co-founder and chairman of the board.
“All those mailings coming back, all the letters and phone calls and questions that came with that, and this is all with existing staff, so they still had their day jobs to do.”
This was all happening quite fast considering the company did its first dollar of business in July 2007, and by 2008, it posted $109.3 million in gross written premiums.
Taking on that extra work is all part of working in a rapidly growing company. Having a flexible staff and culture that will support the growth and go the extra mile will make the process smoother than if you don’t hire correctly and have a negative culture.
“The growth wasn’t a democratic vote,” he says. “Not amongst employees, anyways. Once we walked down that path, they did all rise to the occasion. The other side of that is, of course, in them rising to the occasion, they are also providing the feedback as to what the necessary tools and infrastructure are to keep doing these things.”
Here’s how Patel found the right people and created a culture that could handle rapid growth.Hire the right people
Patel didn’t wait for growth to happen, and then scramble to find people. He had most of his staff assembled before the major growth hit.
“You don’t stack 100 percent to that need, but you at least make sure you are well on that path,” he says.
But, that method of hiring, at first, created a small problem employees had nothing to do.
“In some ways, that’s what happens with the pregrowth strategy,” he says. “You end up with people who feel slightly under-utilized until the work flow hits and, at which point, it becomes normalized.”
When things get settled, you want workers who will have a number of talents and skills to get the job done.
“In a perfect world, you want somebody with lots of experience and a tremendous work ethic and great attitude and flexibility,” he says. “Finding that magical employee who has all of those attributes in that one person is tough to do.”
Since those magical employees are so hard to find, you should hire employees who, collectively, will create an organization with all of those attributes.
“They may not all be residing in one particular individual, but it is there in an organization,” he says.
Patel first hired employees with experience in the business and then hired employees who had less experience but a get-up-and-go attitude.
“On the other hand, we don’t hire everybody with just no experience and lots of great get-up-and-go because you need people who have been there and know how to do this,” he says. “So, we try to balance between the two at any given moment in time.”
When hiring, have potential employees meet various people around the organization because different individuals notice different things and that collective feedback is accurate.
“Obviously, depending on the level of position you are hiring for, it’s a different set of people who interview the individual,” he says. “In reality, the other side of this is you try to create a good stable work environment. You want any new people to, in some ways at least, meet the people who are actually going to be their peers.
“In doing so, you very quickly ensure that the people that you bring in fit with the culture that is already here.”
The department the company is hiring for will affect who is interviewing the person. Sometimes a position calls for certain specialties, so people within the department who know how to find that technical expertise will be a part of the interview process.
Positions that are less about technical qualifications and more about personality and aptitude give you a wider range of people you can choose to be a part of the interview process.
If you have a board of directors, you can also look to get it involved in the interview process, especially if you are hiring someone at the senior management level.
“Because they are going to be dealing a lot more with board folks, on those occasions, bring them in.”
Patel and his team will also ask board members to be part of the interview team when the board member shares a similar background with a potential hire.
“To some degree, if we can’t find anybody within the company to interview people, we sort of bring some of the board members in to interview the person,” he says.
Much like the position you are hiring for will affect who is on the interview team, the position will also determine the questions you ask.
“But the other side of this is inevitably when you do interviews, we are trying to get a grasp of an individual,” he says. “We do generally go with the conversation to some degree, as well.”
For example, when the company hired a controller, Patel and his team had very specific conversations with candidates about financial statements and other specifics for that position. But because there were many people applying with that experience, they also wanted an idea of the person’s style and personality.
While there are many variables in hiring, Patel always remembers one thing when hiring.
“Never be afraid to hire people who you feel are more qualified than you are,” he says. “If the team does well and you are their leader, you inherently do well.”
While many companies might not be thinking about growth or hiring right now, don’t let a talented person applying for a job get away.
“Sometimes we interview people and there isn’t quite a job opening for that position yet or for their set of skills,” he says. “If you know you are going to be growing, you can say, ‘Well, this person is a good person; I’d like to add them to the organization.’ The organization will grow into that kind of thing.”Guide the culture
When hiring people, Patel doesn’t necessarily need someone to fit in with the culture if he or she will be working in a more technical department, because the new hire won’t be interacting with large sections of employees or customers.
“You are much more open to personalities being slightly different,” he says. “When you get into the customer service area, those kinds of things, it pretty much is a team effort, so you have to be a member of the team,” he says.
At Homeowner’s Choice, Patel allows employees to form the culture.
“You are not imposing a culture; you are guiding a culture,” he says. “That’s the nature of it. It’s interesting to watch in terms of how that culture has been developing in the last year or so.”
When the company had only a handful of people, employees would celebrate each person’s birthday. As the company began to grow, there was a birthday cake every week.
Eventually, one of the company’s faster-growing departments decided to have a birthday day every month to celebrate the birthdays for that particular month.
If you see something like this happening in your co mpany, don’t let the opportunity to join in pass you by.
Part of leading a culture is finding good ideas and contributing to them.
“Basically, when the good things have been done, you try to encourage it,” he says.
“In reality, the good stuff, like the cake thing, when we found out about it, (we said), ‘Why don’t we just pay for the cake?’ We don’t have (employees) looking for dollars.”
On the other hand, if you see departments not communicating, you can take a more hands-on role in creating a collaborative environment.
In the early days, the company had offices in St. Petersburg and St. Lucie, and unless you traveled back and forth between the two, the employees in one office had no idea who was working in the other office.
To change that, Patel had some people come over from the St. Petersburg office and work in the St. Lucie office and vice versa.
“Now, when you have an issue, you are much more likely to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing, can you help me with it?’ as opposed to a name on a telephone list.”
Patel also wants to make sure employees feel comfortable calling him or speaking with him in person if they need him.
Instead of just preaching an open-door policy, Patel takes it one step further and has an open office plan. He has a cubicle the same size as everyone else’s and he spends time in there during the workday. This type of action allows Patel to get away from executive-level distractions and focus on the daily operations. It also makes you available to employees who might be intimidated when it comes to knocking on the boss’s door.
“You are now then immersed in what’s (happening) on a day-to-day basis because, in my office, it’s phone calls and meetings and those kinds of things,” he says. “Those are necessary things that need to get done. But the real heart of the business is out in the open plan area.”
If something is going on or somebody has an issue, you can hear about it and do something about it.
“But, that sounds like eavesdropping,” he says. “That isn’t the intent or the idea. If you are there doing some work and then you have a question, you just walk up to the person and ask a question. If I am asking them the question, then they come and ask me, and we get a comfort level with asking questions and talking to each other.”
This also eliminates an employee having to make that long walk to the boss’s office if something went wrong.
“If I am in my office and they have something to say, they’ve got to get up and walk down the hallway,” he says. “Especially if it’s something they think I might not appreciate hearing, it suddenly becomes a long walk. I just say that from having walked in those shoes. It’s all of maybe 30 yards, but it’s a long walk.”
Taking these actions and forming a positive culture can go a long way when things get tough in the business world.
“Once every so often … we get thrown a curveball,” he says. “By having the right corporate culture, you can get everybody in a room and say, ‘This is how this has changed, and we need to do the following.’ And everybody says, ‘OK, this is what I can do to help’ and so on. Lo and behold, we get things done.”
How to reach: Homeowners Choice Inc., (888) 210-5235 or www.hcpci.com