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Top Places to Work | CEO Roundtable

Charting the course for better times

These top executives say the recovery isn’t here yet, but they all believe it’s time to get ready

November 8, 2009

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After the worst recession since the 1930s, are we ready for better times? We convened a panel of executives to discuss what they’ve done to survive the downturn and how they’re preparing for the recovery. Robert Gavin of the Globe staff posed those questions to David Lissy, chief executive of child care provider Bright Horizons Family Solutions of Watertown; Mike Sheehan, chief executive of Boston advertising firm Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos; and Stephen Vinter, Google’s top executive in Boston.

Top Places: We hear there’s a recovery out there.

Sheehan: Really?

Top Places: Are we in a recovery?

Sheehan: It hasn’t been getting worse for five to six months. But to be honest, I haven’t seen real signs of a recovery. I’m just not getting a sense of, “Let’s go. Let’s start sprinting.’’

Lissy: It’s unemployment that drives our business as much as anything, and we’re not seeing signs of that moving in the opposite direction yet.

Top Places: How did you keep your employees going in the recession?

Sheehan: You want to be sure not to exploit the recession. You want to be careful not to say, “You’re lucky to have a job.’’ We try to make it even more attractive and interesting because before long, we’re going to be on the other side, fighting desperately to get the right people.

Top Places: Clearly, it’s been stressful. What are some of things that helped your employees?

Vinter: We expanded benefits. It is really a time to make your people feel more valuable, make the place more valuable for them.

Lissy: We not only added benefits, we made our offerings more flexible so there’s more variety. But trying to be the best place to work, the employer of choice, is a long-term thing. When you get into times like this, it pays dividends.

Sheehan: People want to continue to learn and grow. We’ve spent a lot of time with programs that guide them so they can reinvent themselves in a time of great reinvention.

Top Places: Did anyone have to go through layoffs or salary freezes?

Lissy: We froze the salaries for people at the top - the vice president level and above - so we could provide salary increases in the rest of the company. The majority of people are making modest incomes and doing the hard work in our schools and centers.

Top Places: How much did you communicate with your employees about the situation? What did you tell them?

Lissy: People are affected not only by what’s going on in the company, but what they’re hearing from friends and family. We felt it was important to try and take away anxiety by being open with them about how we were doing and the environment we were operating in.

Sheehan: We communicate regularly. We don’t do it by e-mail. We do it face to face. At the end of last year, I was asked, “Should we be nervous?’’ Heck, yeah. We’re the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression. But trust us, we’re going to work together and we’re going to get through this.

Vinter: It’s been very candid. One of the things said was, “These are waters we have never been through.’’ Being honest like that pays dividends, increases credibility.

Top Places: How do you balance staying in business during a recession against being prepared to grow in the recovery?

Lissy: We’ve been active in getting the right people in place for when it happens.

Vinter: Not a quarterly meeting goes by that I don’t hear, “Scarcity breeds clarity.’’ It’s so important not to look at this as a negative, but as an opportunity to improve the business.

Lissy: Be mindful of the present, but don’t stop looking at the future. We want to make sure that when we do emerge from this recession, we’re in position to take advantage of the talent and brand we built over the years.

Top Places: What did you learn?

Lissy: When you go through this kind of period, it really tests the strength of your culture. You learn whether the culture you built can get you through tough times. It’s been confirming.

Sheehan: Ultimately, you have to address the financial reality. If you have to make cuts, do it swiftly, decisively, and earnestly. But then you’ve got to grow. You have to have free up part of your budget to invest in your future. You just can’t cut your way to success.

Top Places: Are you hiring now?

Vinter: Yes.

Top Places: A lot, a little?

Sheehan: We’re doing it regularly.

Vinter: We’re looking at a lot of people right now. Hundreds.

Sheehan: We’re not looking at hundreds. But there are really talented people out looking for work. We’re always looking to make the place better.

Top Places: Does your approach to employees differ in a growth period? Do you offer better benefits?

Sheehan: Coming out of a recession, you don’t want to be too aggressive right off the bat, because it can be problematic. But you want to treat people fairly. When it becomes more competitive to find people, we want them to love working here.

Vinter: One of the messages that has come across is, people want to have fun at work. Part of what we need to do is celebrate that we’ve gotten through this thing. We were on the brink of doomsday.

Lissy: We aim to have fun, too. But our goal, good times or bad, is to be a place where people feel welcome. We’re in a field that has no proprietary technology, no sort of killer app. It’s all about people and their ability to care for and educate young children.

Top Places: Predictions. Where do you think the economy and your companies will be in a year?

Sheehan: It’s going to be a while before it’s a robust economy, but we’ll be on track towards it.

Lissy: I think 2010 will be a little better than 2009

Vinter: Google’s a verb now. It’ll be a verb next year. Top Places: Any parting words?

Sheehan: It’s all about the people.

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.