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U.S. Cellular: the No. 1 large Best Company

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

2006 100 Best Companies Cultural differences

The U.S Cellular tribe, led by sales director Calvin Emigh, has an office culture built around frontline salespeople.

By Oakley Brooks

Mike Shaw wasn’t sure that he could stomach the vibe at U.S. Cellular, after spending two decades at a Portland paint company in a top-down “old boys club,” as he calls it.

He moved to Medford three years ago to run retail stores sales for U.S. Cellular’s Oregon and Northern California operation and new CEO Jack Rooney, based at corporate headquarters in Chicago, emphasized that managers were around to be resources for the front-line sales people. That often takes the form of being warm and fuzzy toward them.

“This is the most huggy company I’ve ever seen,” Shaw says. “My wife thinks we’re crazy.”

To watch Shaw enter a store now, one would think he had arrived at a high school reunion. Big slaps on the back, chatting up sales associates with a large grin. “It makes such a difference,” says Shaw, now among the converted.

U.S. Cellular’s warm culture is indeed delivering returns. Sales in Oregon, where it has 260 employees, and Northern California grew 18% last year.

There are plenty of perks at U.S. Cellular: Aspiring sales reps are reimbursed for their higher-ed tuition provided they pass their classes. Workers and their families are treated to free cell phones and subsidized service.

But the company spends a massive amount of time honing the continuous feedback loop that is Rooney’s “dynamic organization.” Every opportunity to coach sales associates is seized and they, in turn, have ample time to bend a supervisor’s ear.

Calvin Emigh, the highest-ranking executive in Oregon, is reviewed by his staff as part of a 100-question culture survey every year. (His employees rated their overall experience at 3.94 out of possible 4.) He also has a flip chart page pasted to the door of his Medford office listing goals some of his co-workers recently drew up for him. Prioritize, they tell him, everyone wants a piece of you.

“This is a different train of thought, that I’m here to serve them,” says Emigh, 36, who started as a U.S. West Cellular (later Verizon) technician in 1990. He rarely goes anywhere without his phone earpiece clipped to his shirt collar and has stopped sending Saturday e-mails because co-workers were feeling pressured. “It’s forced me to manage my time better.”

In the highly competitive cell industry, U.S. Cellular’s culture is the way it tries to differentiate itself. To demonstrate they have the right stuff, candidates for entry-level sales positions must walk interviewers through seven different life scenarios where they demonstrated things such as “effective relationships.”

“We’re looking for certain behaviors,” Emigh says.

The ideal disposition lives in someone like young saleswoman Liz Wolgamot in U.S. Cellular’s West Medford store. She doesn’t squirm during a recent encounter in which a young customer tells her boyfriend to change his cell number to cut off the ex-girlfriend, “or the wedding’s off.” Both leave with the phone and the new numbers they need, courtesy of Wolgamot.

In the back offices, she tries to explain the real draw at her workplace: “We care about each other. When my kid is sick, I’m told to go home. I still get here early, four years after I started.”

She sees the year-end survey as a way not to criticize but to compliment. “We love that,” she says. “It’s a chance to say how great our leaders are. Yes, if you needed to complain it would be good for that, too.”
It’s an all-out love-in.

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