Tying work and play

Challenge: More than 10 businesses will compete in athletic and mind games in the 15th Columbia Athletic Club's Corporate Challenge.

Howard At Play

October 13, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

If you're thinking up ways for grown-ups to compete in a setting associated mostly with pumping iron, sweating off pounds on a treadmill or stationary bike, and smacking around a small ball with a racket, Pictionary doesn't leap to mind.

But as passive as it is, the widely played word game is, indeed, one popular event in a evening-long competition that is evolving into tradition for at least a few Columbia-based companies. In fact, on Friday, more than 150 competitors from 10 businesses will compete in a mix of athletic and mind games at the Columbia Athletic Club in the 15th Corporate Challenge.

Talk with organizers and participants, and the competition, run by the Columbia Park and Recreation Association, seems an eccentric blend of business and pleasure. Candace Dodson Reed, the association's corporate-relations manager, acknowledges that part of the idea is to market the association's facilities.

But corporate America also has a long history of using sports not only for promotion but for more subtle reasons related to motivation, morale and team-building, niches the challenge seems to address.

"There's a point to it," said industrial engineer Bob Klein, 28, organizer of the defending champion team from Bowles Fluidics Corp., a 300-employee company that makes windshield-washer nozzles. "Our team comes from all parts of our plant, and you not only meet people you may not know well, but you see one another in a different light. That has a lasting effect when you get back into the office."

Joe D'Alonzo, 33, call-center operations director and team organizer for Amerix Corp., an 800-worker company that provides services for credit counseling, takes a different tack, noting that his employer includes many younger workers, among them "a lot of frustrated former college athletes."

"We're a company that thinks fitness and exercise pay dividends on the job," said D'Alonzo, a Centennial High graduate and former baseball catcher at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Amerix also sponsors teams in county Department of Recreation and Parks basketball, indoor soccer and flag football leagues. The company, competing for the second year after finishing second overall in points a year ago, has put up money for two teams to compete.

Teams from each company total a maximum of 16 participants. Each team, although not each member, must compete in events as diverse as volleyball, basketball, tennis, racquetball, an obstacle course, a relay in which "players" pass an orange from neck to neck, and a balloon-based race.

Some participants can add points to their team totals for participating in kick-boxing or cycling. For the nonathletic, there's Pictionary or some other comparable game, such as Scategories or Jeopardy.

The challenge was the brainchild of former Columbia Association employee Michelle Lobingier, who has since moved, said Donna DuPree, the association's marketing and communications director.

"We do a lot of stuff for residents of Columbia," DuPree said, "but we wanted to have something for businesses here, too." Like homeowners, Columbia businesses also are required to pay an annual assessment to support the association, and some companies, such as Amerix, offer association membership to workers.

Reed said association managers are talking about expanding the Corporate Challenge next year to include more events and to use more facilities, among them the Swim Center and golf courses. Using just the Athletic Club in Harper's Choice village is too limiting because of its size.

DuPree added another dimension to why the association wants to be more solicitous: "As Columbia nears build-out for residences, people who work here represent more of a future market for CA programs."

Workers in Columbia businesses are eligible for all association facilities, and DuPree said that roughly 10 percent - 2,712 of 24,270 employees - have such memberships now.

The noncompetitive dimension that includes Pictionary appeals to Melanie Cummings, office manager for BYK-Gardner USA, a 38-worker office in Columbia for a German-based business that makes quality-control instruments for the paint and plastics industries. Roughly a third of BYK-Gardner's local staff will participate for the fourth year.

"A lot of the other companies seem to have a lot of people into body building and athletics, but we don't," said Cummings. "We do it just because it's fun to do something as a group - and to see how some people can be so competitive."

Team members for defending champion Bowles Fluidics started talking about this year's competition about two months ago, said Klein, but excitement has boundaries.

"No, we don't actually practice for it," he said, laughing. "We prepare - like, we go out and shoot a few baskets, and it's, `OK, the basketball team's ready.'"

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