Company values tested by tough times

Forgive me if I roll my eyes at yet another corporate motto -- on my best days, I try to be polite enough to not roll them in front of the executive who happens to be mouthing the words.

Unfortunately I slipped up, when I was interviewing Robert "Bob" Guillocheau, chief executive at Ascensus Inc., the Dresher-based back office retirement and college savings plan administrator that handles more than $100 billion in assets. The motto was, as usual, inspiring: People Matter. Quality First. Integrity Always.

But Guillocheau caught me mid-roll. Fine, I said, sounds good, but how do your "core values" play out when times are tough?

Here's the story he told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Inquirer:

"In 2006, one of our largest clients, a big mid-western bank, made a decision to get out of the 401-K business and sell their business. They sold it to one of our biggest competitors, which, as you can imagine, wasn’t interested in using us as the record keeper for their new business. That relationship represented $12 million in revenue for us, probably about 10 percent, at the time. It provided employment for 120 people. We were actually a public company at that point and so I went to our board and I said, `You know what? I know the knee jerk reaction in corporate America is the business is going away, so we need to get rid of the expenses to offset the revenue loss.' "

By expenses, you mean people, I said.

"Right, that would be a very typical thing to do," he said. He continued to recount his speech to his board.

"Our values would tell us that maybe that’s not the typical thing to do and here’s what I’d like to do. We have a good pipeline of prospective new clients coming in and I think if we let those [employees] go, we’re going to turn around over the next couple of years having to go out and hire a bunch of other people – people who don’t know our culture, people who aren’t as experienced as these people. I would like to keep all these people and I’m pretty sure within a year and a half, we’ll be able to grow through the lost business.

"The board agreed. There was an incremental cost to it. It probably cost us a $1 million to $1.5 million. But we had 120 people who knew the business and quite honestly, it also sent a message to everyone else, that those values aren’t just values on good days – they can be just as important on bad days," he said.

By the way, Ascensus did grow the business enough to absorb  the lost revenues.

Then he told me another story, and I'll tell you that one Tuesday.