Zinc Group consistently ranks as one of Australia's best places to work. It also doubled its revenue in just four years. MD Peter Cleary believes that focusing on staff recruitment and engagement is fundamental to business success.

Developing people and culture in the workplace

Brand promotion company Zinc Group's Managing Director Peter Cleary believes putting his people first has encouraged commitment and loyalty. He also believes it has led to employee productivity and new business growth.

“I wanted to create the kind of place I’d always wanted to work,” Cleary says. “Our goal was for people to want to work for us and stay with us, and then build that into the culture that would give us a competitive advantage.”

Focusing on company culture

When Cleary started Zinc, he didn’t have a formalised retention policy. The very first business plan, however, did have the financials at the back and company culture at the front. He believes company culture is an integral part of brand strategy. Being known as a great place to work will attract the best to your company.

“Every business is trying to create a sustainable competitive advantage,” he says. “But unless you have a patent or some other sort of industry advantage, which very few businesses do, you can only be sustainable if you have the right people.”

And, as Zinc’s track record shows, hiring great employees and keeping them is one of the best ways to increase productivity and provide your customers with the best outcomes.

“The key thing we work on is client satisfaction, which is reflected in revenue and gross profit,” says Cleary. “That’s been increasing each year since we started and I don’t think we could’ve achieved the growth we’ve had for seven years if we didn’t have such a high rate of retention.”

Zinc achieved 10th place in the 2017 BRW Best Places to Work Study (companies under 100 employees) conducted by Great Place to Work Australia. Cleary gives his tips on how to keep good people and maintain workplace culture:

1. Put your team first

Before Zinc, Cleary worked in large publicly listed companies where he was already questioning the business viability of the traditional model of “shareholders first, clients in the middle, then the people we call staff somewhere down at the back”.

Cleary explains: “I thought we should start with the people and let’s not call them staff, let’s call them team members. Happy, challenged team members will do good work that’ll keep your clients satisfied, and the benefits for shareholders and other stakeholders will flow on from there.”

2. Recruit people with similar values

Instead of paying commissions, Cleary decided to invest more time hiring people with similar values who’d respond to intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. By taking this approach, the commission his team members expect to earn elsewhere is built into their regular salary.

“The policy is a bit like an iron fist in a velvet glove,” he says. “If, after six or 12 months you’re not able to meet the requirements that come with the remuneration you’re receiving, the fit here isn’t strong and you probably need to work somewhere else.”

3. Allow your team to grow with your business

As opportunities to develop a career path is one of the most influential factors, Cleary made business growth a retention strategy. “When a business continues to invest in growth, people stay interested because they can develop with the organisation,” he says.

Expanding into global markets, Zinc now has offices in Australia, New Zealand, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the USA. “While we’ve been looking to exploit good growth opportunities for the business, this is also a way of holding on to people that we really don’t want to lose,” he continues.

However, growing the business isn’t a strategy Cleary plans to pursue indefinitely. “Zinc could probably be two or three times the size it is now but I’ve learned from past experience that it’s very difficult to maintain a monoculture in a $200 million organisation,” he says. “There may be a dominant culture but inevitably a number of subcultures will develop so the whole thing becomes much harder to manage.”

4. Introduce non-financial benefits

Cleary has also established the Zinc advantage program – an extensive list of non-financial benefits to increase employee engagement, motivate staff and consequently boost productivity at work.

The statutory four weeks’ holiday increases to six over a five-year period, team members get their birthday off, along with two days for anything needing to be done during work hours, such as visiting the dentist or attending a special event at their kid’s school. “People take those days off anyway so we’d rather give them a way of doing it legitimately,” he says. “Like any decent culture, ours is built on trust so we try to make it easy for people to do the right thing.”

Zinc also offers its team members many personal and professional development opportunities, good deals on everything from mortgages to mobile phones, and even free breakfasts. How does Cleary justify the cost? “We’ve saved a lot of money on recruitment and staff training, particularly retraining, and we’ve never had a Workcover claim so our premiums are relatively low,” he says.

Important information

This is an edited and updated version of an article originally published in Business View magazine (Summer 2013).

The information contained in this article is intended to be of a general nature only. It has been prepared without taking into account any person’s objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this information, NAB recommends that you consider whether it is appropriate for your circumstances. NAB recommends that you seek independent legal, financial, and taxation advice before acting on any information in this article.

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