November 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Coping in a Seller’s Market - November 2000

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November 2000

Tried & True

In an age when many workers seem to job-hop as sport, why have these planners remained loyal to their employers for decades?

By Carla Benini

  Nelson Fabian has devoted 17 years to the National Environmental Health Association. Deborah Gaffney has been at the Tax Executives Institute for 15. Denise Novak, CMP, is a proud 22-year employee of Ernst & Young. These veterans have watched cubicles multiply and outnumber corporate offices. They’ve witnessed the birth of 401(k)s, and seen typewriters replaced by computers and supplemented by Palm Pilots.

When Susan Byrd, CMP, joined the SAS Institute Inc. as a secretary 23 years ago, the Cary, N.C., software company had fewer than 10 employees. Today, she is manager of training administration for a firm that employs 3,500. “I’ve never thought of leaving SAS,” says Byrd.

Considering the mass exodus from brick-and-mortar firms to virtual employers, and in lieu of the younger generation’s tendency to job-hop as sport, such devotion seems almost antiquated. Today, about one-quarter of workers in the United States have been with their current employers for 12 months or less, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. In the private sector, the median length of tenure is 3.2 years. Government employees tend to last longer; median tenure for the public sector is 7.2 years.

What makes planners like Byrd stay put? The answer rarely is money alone. They cite some key tangibles health and retirement benefits but also a host of subjective factors, like the satisfaction of working for an organization in which they believe. A great boss, reliable colleagues, even an easy commute are among the loyalty builders.

“A good company realizes people need change, diversity, to be engaged,” says Ann Vincola, senior partner at Corporate Work/Life Consulting in Boston. Rather than focusing on health benefits or savings programs alone, firms are becoming more attuned to the big picture, notes Vincola. “They are focusing on what is really going to keep these people at their jobs.”

What’s the secret to long-term job satisfaction? M&C talked to meeting planners who have spent at least 10 years with one employer to find out why they’ve stayed, whether they have considered moving on and, in some cases, why they finally called it quits.

Work that matters
There have been some unforgettable moments in Nelson Fabian’s years as executive director of the Denver-based National Environmental Health Association. He shared a sitting room with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton during the G7 Summit in Denver four years ago. Last May, Fabian participated in a counterbiological terrorism exercise, a joint effort with the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Justice, the Colorado State Police and local health organizations.

“I have had the opportunity to participate in such powerful experiences, and you can’t put a price tag on that,” he says. Fabian, 51, formerly with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association in Detroit, relocated his family to take the top post at the NEHA in 1983. It was a low point in the life of the association, a time when it was practically clinging to solvency. “Our auditor gave us a report that was tantamount to, ‘last one out, turn off the lights,’” he recalls.

He considered the crisis a challenge. “There’s something thrilling about coming into a situation when the chips are down,” he says. Today, Fabian is knee-deep in chips: During his tenure, membership has nearly doubled from 2,800 to 5,500, and the budget has increased from $280,000 to $3.5 million. Fabian’s staff has grown from four to 27 employees.

His role in this turnaround is part of Fabian’s incentive for staying. “Building something has been one of the joys of this work,” he says.“As long as I can grow and do something meaningful, I am a happy man.”

Fabian also likes the location. In 1983, the choice to move to Denver was in large part a reaction to the declining economy in Detroit. “I wanted to raise my family in a better part of the country,” says Fabian. “I had done enough traveling in my job to appreciate that there were nicer places to live.”

As for salaries, Fabian says that they “still lag” in the nonprofit sector. Yet, he would rather feel free to do his job as he sees fit than earn more money. He works up to 70 hours a week but has a great deal of latitude. “I’m not sure I could enjoy that leeway elsewhere,” he notes.

And then there’s the bigger picture to consider: Fabian is a leader in the environmental industry, and that’s something to be proud of. “When I turn out my light,” he says, “it’s good to know that I have a small part in making the world a better place to be.”

Starting over
Laura Yarbrough The dust has not yet begun to settle on the desk of Laura Yarbrough, CMP. When she spoke to M&C in August, she had served as the marketing events manager for Philips Speech Processing in Dallas for all of 10 days. But she expects to be with the company for a very long time.

Yarbrough spent 16 years with her former employer, EDS, also in Dallas. Exciting programs, the security of a large corporation and benefits that allowed her to twice take an eight-week maternity leave when she adopted children were among the reasons she stayed.

“They gave things to me, and in return, I was so loyal,” says Yarbrough, who is 43. But a change in management led to layoffs that left Yarbrough and almost half of the 12-person meetings department out of work.

After 16 years, Yarbrough found herself back in the job market. “It was frightening,” she recalls. “Everything had changed. In 1983, you got your foot in the door by having the prettiest résumé.”

She is optimistic about her new job, which she found through a former colleague. Philips Speech Processing is a new division of the Dutch firm Royal Philips Electronics. Yarbrough enjoys an entrepreneurial atmosphere that has the backing of a parent company with deep pockets. “There are no preconceived notions about what can and cannot be done,” says Yarbrough, who is charged with finding booth space at trade shows, arranging for speakers and planning Philips’ own conferences.

Looking back, she believes leaving EDS was a good thing. “I’d like to stay here for the next 15 years.”

Family matters
Karen Galdámez For Karen Galdámez, meetings coordinator for the Committee on State Taxation in Washington, D.C., job loyalty is based on a mutual understanding.

“At work, people know my boys are my priority. I put in nine and a half hours, but at five o’clock, I’m out,” says the soccer mom, who moonlights as a chauffeur to get her three teenage sons to their practice sessions.

“My ambition has not been to become a high-profile planner,” says Galdámez, 34, who has been with the organization for 11 years. “I know when you move around a lot you make more money, but that’s not my goal.”

Galdámez has unlimited sick days and four weeks of vacation. Days off for doctor visits are not a problem, she says. The company is generous with benefits and its 401(k) program. And she enjoys the downtown D.C. location and the camaraderie of her co-workers.

The job itself is not perfect. A change in leadership has led to some frustrations. Forced to bring new management up to speed, Galdámez feels some of her responsibilities have been neglected. And there have been temptations: She has been offered higher-paying jobs, but nothing has enticed her to risk losing the flexibility of her current post.

“I don’t know what it would take for me to leave,” says Galdámez. “The money isn’t that big of a deal to me. I just want to be happy.”

In fact, it’s her strong commitment to family that could eventually push Galdámez to make a major move. She would like to leave D.C. for the beaches of North Carolina, where her mother lives. But, she says, there are few opportunities for planners in that area.

Respect and more
Deborah Gaffney Deborah Gaffney’s professional commitment of more than 15 years with the Tax Executives Institute in Washington, D.C., is due in large part to her smooth working relationship with her supervisor, the executive director. However, “My boss is retiring in 2001,” notes Gaffney, director of conference planning, “and I’m going to cry buckets.”

While her longtime mentor will be missed, those who remain are extremely supportive. “Our leaders respect that the logistics of conference planning are part of the success of the educational program,” she says. Gaffney, 47, also appreciates that her professional development is supported by the institute, which pays the dues for her membership in meetings industry associations. Even her commute from Maryland is partially subsidized.

Gaffney likes being part of a small staff she is one of just 13 employees. “There are fewer rules here,” she notes. And she is able to leave work early to attend her son’s school events or for other special occasions. “I’ll be taking the day off for his birthday,” she says.

Financial security for her family’s future also is important. Gaffney is grateful for what she calls a “very generous” pension and 401(k). “I don’t worry that I wouldn’t find this elsewhere, but I wouldn’t want to test it.”

Another factor: Gaffney just isn’t the type to switch jobs. “It isn’t my personality. My parents both had long-term jobs. I’m comfortable with it.”

Riding out change
Kevin McNally It’s not the bosses, the salary or the perks that have kept Kevin McNally, CMP, with the same hotel company for 21 years. “I stay because of the talent,” says McNally, catering and convention service manager at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. “If I didn’t like the people I worked with, I’d get out.”

In the hospitality industry, that kind of tenure is nearly unheard of. A conscious decision not to burn out might be partly responsible for McNally’s staying power. “I reached a point in my career where I said, ‘I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to do my job and do it well, but you can’t control everything.’”

McNally has seen his job evolve over the years, especially in light of a healthy and demanding economy. He finds the majority of his time today, about 75 percent, is spent forecasting revenue of existing clients. The rest is saved for customer relations. It was the reverse when the 43-year-old first started in the business, he says, adding, “Today, you almost have to be an accountant.”

Accountant or no, McNally’s job has afforded him the chance to work in different locales, including Tucson, Ariz., and Chicago. “With Sheraton I’ve moved around every one to two years, and each time it has been a promotion,” he notes.

McNally puts in 55 hours a week, and maybe even a half-day on the weekend. But, he says, “I’m not trying to work harder I’m trying to work smarter.” To find a balance between his work and personal life is a paramount aim. “As we get on in years, our goals change. At work, I want to have some fun, learn something new, make a difference with another human being and then go home and take care of my personal life.”

Beyond the office walls
In more than two decades of service, Denise Novak, CMP, has watched the evolution of training at the Chicago-based Ernst & Young move from the classroom to the computer. She began as a secretary in the tax department. After two years and with a few successful meetings under her belt, she applied for the position of area education coordinator, which she has held ever since.

“The firm has been good to me,” says Novak, who is 46. “The benefits are fair, and the salary increases are fine.”

Novak spends two days a week working from her home, about 65 miles from urban Chicago. Although she enjoys a network of friends on her commuter train, Novak welcomes the breaks from her four-hour daily commute. Another plus: Her husband, a residential construction consultant, is her home office mate. “I like having the best of both worlds,” she notes. “I like working in the big city and then coming home to five wooded acres.”

When in the office, Novak is on the move, visiting internal departments to facilitate their educational and training sessions. She also helps plan executive meetings and social functions.

While she’s in it for the long haul, Novak sees “a lot of turnover” at the company and says many positions are being filled with considerably younger employees. “I don’t think they have the same work ethic,” says Novak. “It will be interesting to see if they advance, settle on a career or continue [going] job to job.”

Ousted veteran
Pat Stemple The day in 1988 when Pat Stemple was hired as manager of meeting planning for the Kellogg Company in Battle Creek, Mich., was the day her pantry was cleared of all competing brands. “I give my loyalty immediately to whatever company I work for,” she says. “I did that for B.F. Goodrich; I did that with Kellogg.

Stemple, age 50, gave 12 years to the cereal giant, setting the standards for a department that eventually grew to execute as many as 600 meetings annually. But on Aug. 4, for reasons she still finds unclear, Stemple was asked to leave. “For 12 years, I put Kellogg first before anything. In one day I felt like they forgot that.”

Stemple was proud of Kellogg. And while never promoted, she says she was well compensated in salary and benefits. Although she has no children, Stemple appreciated the company’s community involvement, such as its effort to improve local schools.

“I’m not fully aware of why I’m not there anymore,” Stemple acknowledges. Over the past few years, she perceived the company was gradually distancing itself from what had once been a supportive role in meetings. As a possible reason, Stemple points to the intense competition among cereal companies and the strong focus Kellogg placed on its core business.

Stemple, who is president of the Society of Corporate Meeting Professionals and a board member for the Convention Industry Council, claims she was being pushed to lower standards she had fought so hard to raise. “There were times I wasn’t getting the support I needed to implement and enforce standards.”

Meetings and contracts were being handled by nonplanners throughout the company, she says, adding they were jeopardizing the company from a legal standpoint and threatening the integrity of her department. However, she says, Kellogg did not give her the resources to track those meetings and enact change.

While Stemple says she continued to push her staff to meet department goals and maintain quality, she felt higher-ups were sending the message to cut costs. “My staff was tired, frustrated, maybe even angry. That all gets directed back at me.”

Looking back, Stemple believes she could have compromised “a little bit” if it meant holding onto her job. Now, she is trying to enjoy her time at home and contemplate her next move. “Everyone says I’ll eventually get angry,” she says. “So far, I just shed a lot of tears.”

Stemple is surprisingly hopeful about finding another dream job. At the top of her wish list is a company that would give her staff the authority to “get the job done.”

She wants to find an organization that “not only allows for a balanced life but treasures it.” Stemple says she and her husband of three years do not expect she will find said company in Battle Creek, headquarters to Kellogg and not much else. They are prepared to live apart for a while, if necessary.

Despite her painful experience, she says, she’ll be as devoted to her next job as she was to Kellogg. “I think the overriding factor will be my nature, and that is to be loyal, whether it’s to my company, my family or my friends.”

“We’re not your normal company,” admits Betty Lang-Holmes, vice president of human resources for Ipswitch Inc. in Lexington, Mass. In an industry where turnover averages 22 percent a year, at Ipswitch it’s 9 percent. “If employees are treated well, they will treat the customers well, and then the profits will come,” says Lang-Holmes.

Employees certainly are treated well at Ipswitch. concierge service will pick up laundry, make dinner reservations or wait for a plumber at their homes. Elder care, child care and domestic-partner benefits are available. After one year, employees get five weeks vacation plus 10 holidays. They get hefty annual bonuses, too.

At another software firm, SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., turnover hovers at around 4 percent. SAS, established in 1976, was one of the first firms to offer workers on-site child care. Today, the company’s cafeteria is equipped with high chairs. SAS also provides an on-site health-care center, where sniffling employees can get a quick fix of cold medicine and be back at their desks in minutes. Most employees are out the door by 5 p.m.; some work flextime. Says Mike Gallagher, senior human resources manager, “The retention we’ve benefitted from comes from the company philosophy: You hire the best people, and then ensure they’re happy.”


Time to Go?
Do you need a new job or just a vacation? Dan King, principal of Career Planning and Management Inc. in Boston, and Bruce Wayne, president/CEO of, say the following signs point to the exit door.

You are no longer learning. When you find the learning curve is beginning to straighten, it’s time for new challenges.

You feel sick and tired. A sense of dread, fatigue, frequent headaches and colds might be job-related. Unhappiness at work can be expressed physically.

You just don’t care. Lack of excitement about your job should not be the norm.

You’ve strayed from your path. Sometimes a career takes a turn, and five years later you’ve become an expert in a business you simply don’t like.

Your quality of life is suffering. If a 70-hour work week or a hectic travel schedule infringes on important family or personal time, change might be required.

Consider solutions. Would a rejuvenating four-week vacation or new responsibilities inspire you to stay? Approach your boss with suggestions.

If you decide to go, realize that today, longtime loyalty to one company might be viewed as a negative. If one post dominates your résumé, stress your growth during your tenure.


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