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Business

Forget share options, there's a sassier approach to building staff loyalty

If you want to attract the best employees, offer share options. If you want to keep them, offer bonuses. At least that's the Silicon Valley theory. But one company prepared to break that mould is SAS Institute. Sally Watson finds out how old-fashioned company culture is thriving in the modern world
Written by Sally Watson, Contributor on

If you want to attract the best employees, offer share options. If you want to keep them, offer bonuses. At least that's the Silicon Valley theory. But one company prepared to break that mould is SAS Institute. Sally Watson finds out how old-fashioned company culture is thriving in the modern world

Work a 35-hour week leave the office at 4.30pm have lunch with your kids have your own private office take unlimited sick days - not benefits most high-tech workers could claim. But at its headquarters in North Carolina, that's the type of environment datawarehousing specialist SAS Institute has been quietly working on for years. The 200-acre wooded campus houses around 2,700 employees, including developers, technical support staff and sales. As a limited company, SAS can't offer stock options, but the site boasts a brand new Olympic swimming pool, gym, three schools caring for around 500 children, free medical care, three restaurants and an ergonomics lab. No wonder then that the company has a staff turnover rate of around 4 per cent a year - compared with an industry average of over 20 per cent. And according to a study by the Harvard Business School, that saves the company around $15m a year in not having to hire and train new staff. But that's not the only business benefit, according to Jeffrey Chambers, director of human resources: "SAS was founded on the philosophy of building long-lasting relationships with both its customers and staff. "Because we listen to our customers we have a better retention rate. When you purchase SAS software the developer goes through the process with you and stays with you for years. And the technical support staff remembers each customer and their problems. It keeps users happy." And the theory seems to work, with 98 per cent of SAS customers renewing their annual licence each year, making SAS the world's largest limited software company with an annual revenue of over $870m. Founders Jim Goodnight and Jon Sall established this corporate vision right from the start. When SAS moved to its current location in 1980, the very first office building contained a handball court. Les Hamashima, corporate affairs manager, pointed out that the environment helps to attract the very best staff. "In the high-tech industry, there are five jobs for every one skilled worker. SAS only pays industry average wages and doesn't offer stock options, so people have to make a conscious decision to work here - and a conscious decision to stay," he explained. Three years ago SAS introduced 'boot camps' for graduates joining the company. Now instead of being hired for a particular post, the graduates spend time in different jobs, getting to know each other and the company. It's an idea supported by research director, Paul Kent, who believes it makes it easier to pick the right job for each person. The company also has a 'best practices taskforce', made up of managers and staff who, every quarter, look at new ideas to improve campus life. The options currently under consideration include a corporate concierge and a day care centre for dogs. "This is the sort of culture which you can't replicate - it's taken over 20 years to develop," said Chambers. "It's a little weird and socialistic at times, but it certainly makes us different." So maybe the current trend for share options and fat salaries isn't the best way to attract the brightest workers. Would you turn down a job at SAS? After all, it spends $45,000 annually on free M&Ms for the staff...
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