No. 1 large company: Hitachi Consulting

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Sunday, March 01, 2009


Hitachi employees spend Fridays at “home.” From left: Patricia Glennon,  Adela Dalmau,  VP Damian Smith,  Angela Gabel, John Fike and Mike Cordaro.


It was 2002 and for a handful of business management and IT consultants in Portland, it was the worst possible nightmare. The company they worked for, Arthur Andersen, one of the storied “Big Five” accounting firms, was imploding. Day after day brought humiliating headlines and a growing realization that the stability they’d assumed came with working at an industry leader had vaporized.



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Their savior came in the form of Hitachi Consulting, an offshoot of the multi-billion dollar Japanese tech giant. Hitachi does strategy, best practices and business intelligence consulting for IT companies, as well as sales, marketing and supply chain transformation consulting for all types of businesses. The firm approached Andersen’s West Coast employees with open arms, bringing them and their clients into what was then a relatively small company. Less than six years later, the Portland branch of Hitachi finds itself in the most enviable of positions: the No.  1 Large Company on the 100 Best list.  

What brought them to this place should be familiar to anyone who follows each year’s 100 Best. There’s an inspirational boss, a family-like atmosphere and employees who feel deeply valued. What makes Hitachi unique, however, is that it traveled from the worst possible work environment to the best in a relatively short period of time. It’s a story that other Oregon businesses mired in the current recession should take to heart: No matter how terrible things are for your company this year, it’s not too late to turn things around for your employees.

From the 27th floor of Portland’s US Bancorp Tower, Hitachi’s 32 employees have a beautiful panoramic view that stretches from Forest Park to Mt. Adams. It’s not, however, a view that most of them get to enjoy that often; consultants spend most of the week out with clients or on the road. But Fridays are different. That’s the day everyone tries to spend at “home.” They have staff meetings and catch up on office work. They stand around cubicles and talk. They gather in empty conference rooms to eat lunch together.

Hitachi employees spend most of the week out with clients or on the road so Fridays are a day when everyone is in the office for meetings, catching up with one another and taking part in training. The average junior employee receives 120 hours of training a year.

On a sunny Friday morning recently, a few of the firm’s younger consultants were meeting with Kiddazzle, a local nonprofit that Hitachi does pro bono work for. Kiddazzle helps uninsured kids find volunteer dentists. The consultants walked the nonprofit’s staff through the basic components of what will eventually be a marketing plan. Damian Smith, a VP at Hitachi and head of the Portland office, sat quietly on one side of the conference table, occasionally adding an observation to the conversation.

Smith came to the U.S. from the U.K. 10 years ago, about the same time that he joined Hitachi. When he took over the Portland office in 2004, he laid out his main goal in a PowerPoint slide that he still uses with employees to this day: Create a work environment that’s the envy of other businesses. That’s a broad goal, and Smith uses a botanical analogy to describe his approach: Management, he says, provides a trellis, and employees are the vines that use that structure to grow.

The basics of the trellis at Hitachi are not dissimilar to other companies at the top of 100 Best: health, dental, vision, mental health, fitness and alternative care plans; 30 days of paid time off; flex schedules and telecommuting; volunteering paid time off; sick time for dependents; paternity and maternity leave; a nursing room for new mothers.

Those are the basics. Next come the elements that begin to create a unique office environment. There’s the pro bono work — some consultants are spending as much as 50% of their time on Kiddazzle. There are multiple on- and off-site parties and events throughout the year, each of which are documented with countless photos on a hallway wall. There’s an enormous amount of internal and external training opportunities; the average junior employee receives 120 hours of training a year. There are career adviser and mentor programs. There’s what’s called the People and Culture Advisory team, an employee-led group that provides feedback to management on events, leadership and benefits, as well as champions new ideas that workers want to see implemented. Last year several employees used that group to set up a new training initiative for the staff.

“The vines follow the trellis but they also go new places. That’s what we do as leaders. We just provide the trellis,” Smith says.

It’s difficult to create a strong office environment when your employees spend most of their week somewhere else. The Portland branch of Hitachi, which had $9 million in gross revenue in 2008, doesn’t reveal who most of their clients are. The clients they do talk about are varied: The Pet Hospital, in Portland; the Oregon Wave Energy Trust; a “large tire retail and wholesale company.” Employees, particularly those in their late 20s and early 30s, say travel is one of the most difficult parts of the job. That’s one of the reasons Smith and others worked hard to create a day, Friday, when everyone “came home.”

“This job is ebb and flow,” says Susan Anderson, a senior manager, who’s been at the company since the Arthur Andersen days. “You need to make sure that it’s not all flow.”

The combination of the Friday culture with the overall feeling of involvement has created a deep connection between staff members. Ask them what they value most about their jobs and they answer, “the congenial feeling,” “the community,” “the camaraderie,” “having people help each other out.”

The question is, can Hitachi’s culture survive the recession? No one appears overly fearful of 2009; the majority of the firm’s work for the year has already been contracted. The next year, however, is unknown.

Twice a year the Portland employees sit down together and go over the company’s long-term goals. This winter’s meeting was an untroubled affair. There was a presentation about the revenue forecast (it’s flat compared to last year), how training levels would be maintained (“We want to leave the recession stronger than when we went into it,” said Smith), and the growth strategy of Hitachi Consulting overall.

After the presentation, Smith went around the room, with each person describing their own goals and how they intermeshed with the larger corporate goals. In the middle of the worst economic crisis in recent history, every person had a strong sense of where they were going in 2009 and how to make it happen. It was a little window into how the vines and the trellis interact.

How Hitachi went from sweeping up after Arthur Andersen to becoming one of the  best places to work in Oregon may have been relatively quick, but they appear to have understood one of the key components to making the 100 Best list: The top companies have created workplaces where employees feel engaged and valued.

As Craig Johanson, a Hitachi manager puts it: “It’s about Craig. There are people who understand me and want to know who Craig is and where he wants to go. Other places might have a great culture but here someone wants to know what drives me personally and how to make that happen.

“People here feel like they’re unique individuals who are understood.”



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