By Patrick Yeagle | Photos by John Muchow
About seven years ago, one of Brett Jackson’s employees left his Springfield-based company for a large employer. Jackson realized Systemax, a marketing and supply firm, couldn’t compete with the largest companies on pay and benefits, but he knew he could offer something even more valuable. It was a wake-up call that prompted a complete overhaul of Systemax’s corporate culture.
“People who are not in a good work situation want less work and more life,” Jackson said. “In the right place, work and life coexist. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but when you find that organization you’re passionate about and a group of people who feel the same way, you’ve got something special.”
Jackson’s efforts paid off, and on Feb. 21, Systemax was recognized as one of the nation’s best corporate cultures by Entrepreneur magazine.
The magazine partnered with CultureIQ, a company which produces software geared toward improving corporate cultures, to examine thousands of companies across the nation. Each company examined for the competition was invited to apply, and employees at the companies completed a survey on 10 aspects of corporate culture: collaboration, innovation, agility, communication, support, wellness, mission and value alignment, work environment, responsibility and performance focus. The survey results were compiled into a score for each company, and the top 51 small, medium and large companies earned a ranking. Systemax was ranked 46th among the 51 top small companies with 25 to 49 employees.
Brett Jackson describes the culture of Systemax as “a good mix of high-energy fun” with a determination to get things done. Employees wear casual clothing and bring dogs to the office on Fridays. It’s accepted and common for employees to prank one another; Jackson once found his entire office covered in Christmas wrapping paper, including his mouse, keyboard and wall art.
“They’re going to get payback,” Jackson said with a laugh. “But it’s not a fireable offense.”
Besides fun, Jackson says the company values timeless qualities like integrity.
“We hire and fire by those,” he said, adding that not every worker is a good fit. “If you’re person who just wants to be told, ‘Go do my bidding,’ you’re not going to do well in this workplace. People are always finding where the boundary is, but once they start seeing where they can go, it’s amazing how much more enjoyable it is to work and how much more they feel like part of the organization.”
The company’s headquarters were remodeled last year as part of the cultural shift. Jackson says Systemax had rebranded itself to better depict its values to customers, and the office needed to match those values.
“It helped amplify our culture,” he said. “It’s like wearing clothes. If you dress like a punk rocker but you’re really an uptight business person, it doesn’t work.”
As a result of those intentional efforts, Systemax enjoys a high level of employee engagement. Jackson says that’s important because work is a big part of life.
“If our employes aren’t engaged, they start going down the slippery slope of not really wanting to go to work,” he said. “They don’t feel like work is a part of their world, like it’s something that they have to do as opposed to something that fits in their lives organically. It’s important to get culture right because it all fits together.”
Creating a fun but productive work environment didn’t happen by accident, Jackson says.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “It’s not just throw a foosball table in and everything’s magical. There’s a lot of soul-searching on our values. Are they authentic to myself and the core of the organization? We have to stake those values on a daily basis, or it all falls apart when someone doesn’t meet the values. Everyone has a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Jackson says the shift away from a “top-down approach” was hard, but even he has found it more enjoyable.
“I get to be surrounded by people who are like-minded, who are smarter than me and better at their jobs,” he said. “They become the ambassadors for the brand, and it takes the weight off of my shoulders. There are 43 people out there fighting for us instead of just one.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.