After 30 years as a senior accounting associate at Western Union, now a division of First Data Corp., Pam Kotowski was ready to retire. “Every day, I recorded journal entries, pulled down the back reports, and did the transfer to treasury. It was very predictable,” she says. “I was pretty much burned out.”
That was July 1998. By October, however, Kotowski had been promoted to a management position and was encouraging her co-workers to rethink their own careers. “It was like someone had given me a blood transfusion,” the 53-year- old executive assistant says.
Why the sudden turnaround? Kotowski had signed up, albeit reluctantly, for a departmentwide mentoring program, run by a team of co-workers that connected her to an experienced manager who encouraged her to move ahead rather than out. Now, Kotowski not only shines in her job, but she also heads up a team that plans an annual two-day training seminar, started another team for corporate philanthropic activities, and says she won’t be ready to retire for “many years” to come.
The brainchild of First Data CFO Kim Patmore, the mentoring program is part of a multifaceted team- based training initiative she introduced in 1996 to boost morale in the wake of the merger of First Data and Western Union. Patmore, then CFO of Western Union, was charged with bringing employees from both companies together into what is now a 1,500- person shared-services unit covering finance, accounting, and operations- related settlement activities. And going forward, she says, she needed employees who were “passionate” about embracing key finance initiatives, which ranged from process improvement to business partnering. However, what she had were longtime staffers who, like Kotowski, were tired of their narrowly focused jobs and discouraged about their futures.
Recognizing that “you have to have people know they have a career path, or they’re not going to be happy in their jobs,” Patmore decided to invest more heavily in her staff’s development. But instead of using numerous high-priced consultants or lengthy seminars, she tapped employees to steer the course.
Specifically, Patmore introduced “Extreme Teams” that brought employees on all levels together to organize departmental training and development projects, such as the mentoring program. Now the cornerstone for nearly all such projects, these teams tailor training to the needs of each of First Data’s six regional finance units, as well as provide opportunities for all employees to develop leadership skills. The program has also earned Patmore the CFO Excellence Award for Training/Building a Finance Team.
And with good reason. Of the 1,500 employees in First Data’s finance department, some 800 have participated in at least one team effort since 1996, about 400 in the mentoring program alone. Moreover, turnover rates have dropped from around 12 percent at the beginning of 1999 to the current 8 percent. Patmore “has developed a remarkable program of employee and team development,” says CEO Henry “Ric” Duques. Her efforts, adds Cort Norman, director of financial operations at First Data’s St. Charles, Missouri, facility and Kotowski’s supervisor, have “allowed that transformation from an ‘I’m just coming in to get my paycheck’ mentality to truly enjoying coming into work each day.”
Elements Of The Team
Much of the success of the program, Patmore says, is because new initiatives target specific needs. Training is shaped in direct response to an annual departmental survey, which asks employees to agree or disagree with such statements as “Mentoring has improved work/ life balance” and “I feel I am treated with respect and dignity.” This year, the survey also tried to get at how the employees view the firm as a whole, with statements such as “First Data allocates enough money to serve external customers well.”
Once training needs are assessed, two consultants help structure new programs and a group of managers and administrative assistants oversee them. But local employees maintain the finished products. In fact, about one-third of Patmore’s staff now serves on one or more teams and has the opportunity to be a leader, regardless of job title.
The number and scope of the teams vary according to facility, but two teams are standard–one to foster the mentoring program and one to organize Fast Tracks, an annual two-day seminar that covers “soft skills” such as communication and conflict resolution. Other teams coordinate technical skill education programs, such as onsite or online classes from universities, for which First Data provides tuition reimbursement and after-hours facility space. The next step, Patmore hopes, is a CFO University that would allow finance team members to take a minimum of 40 hours of training annually and better customize their training to their career goals.
In addition to training and development, the teams address internal business issues, such as departmental cost-cutting measures and data-flow solutions, as well as community outreach efforts, such as serving meals at shelters. And overall, says Duques, the teams “further the goals of the department while building team spirit and providing additional leadership-development opportunities.”
To Patmore, however, the greatest benefit–especially in the mentoring program–is how the programs “help us break down barriers of levels” between executive- and entry-level employees. And although her CFO role makes it difficult to spend time with every employee, Patmore mentors four to six employees at a time and speaks at Fast Tracks seminars as well as fosters new team ideas. In addition, she has developed some unique solutions, such as seven-minute “Bring Kim to Your Staff Meeting” videos and impromptu roundtable discussions.
The payoffs of Patmore’s programs are numerous. Having employees plan and develop programs means training costs are kept low, with Fast Tracks seminars, the most costly initiative, running from $350 per employee to as low as $150.
Moreover, Norman believes the program has led to productivity gains. Claims for overtime pay used to be up to 400 percent over budget, he says. Although budgets for overtime have shrunk in past years, last year, for the first time, employee claims were actually less than the reduced allocation. “That tells me that even though we have less time at the desktop because of the teams, employees are more productive,” he says. “I take it as a direct correlation between teams and employees feeling appreciated and satisfied.”
The improved morale, says Patmore, has also directly affected her department’s ability to help the company grow and innovate. She applauds her employees for preparing data faster, more accurately, and more creatively than in previous years, even as she has tightened reporting and review processes. But she encourages them to continue looking for ways to improve. “Our number-one priority is giving excellent financial support to the businesses. It’s not good enough to just present data; what does that data mean?” she says.
To analysts, the data shows the $5.5 billion Atlanta-based company to be a top competitor in the New Economy, based on its 50,000 new “virtual retailers” and a 48 percent growth in Western Union agents worldwide in 1999. “With access to more than 1,400 financial institutions and more than 2 million merchants, and connectivity to over 178 countries, First Data offers what we believe to be the most logical structure for E- commerce,” said J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. analyst Raimundo Archibold in a late- July research report.
And, as testimony to the fine finance team Patmore has built, says Greg Gould, vice president at Goldman Sachs & Co., “When we talk to the company, we get very detailed financial analysis, which is a good sign. They have the numbers that we need.”