Hunt Valley game maker sensationally good to workers

May 09, 2004|By JAY HANCOCK

WE'VE HAD some credibility issues here in the media factory lately, so I hesitated to write this column.

I mean, who would believe it?

A corporation that values its workers? A CEO who thinks happy, well-compensated employees are good for the bottom line? Great salaries? Good health insurance? Profit-sharing? Employees who love their jobs? And their company?

Come on, Jay, you'll say. Sensational lies didn't work for USA Today's Jack Kelley, and they won't work for you. Stop titillating the readers with tall tales.

But it's true. I've found perhaps the last company in America that acts like it means it when it says, "Employees are our most important resource."

Believe it or not.

"Yeah, we could make more money" by cutting worker pay and benefits, says Jeff Briggs, chief executive officer of Hunt Valley-based Firaxis Games and its nearly 60 employees. "But my philosophy has always been, if you have the right environment and the right people in that environment, they will make great products.

"And if they make great products, there's going to be money."

The right environment at Firaxis, which makes Civilization and other computer games, includes five weeks of vacation even for new employees. Plus three personal days. And two weeks of sick time. And three hours of monthly community-service time.There's a medical plan with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield of Maryland. For workers -- and their families. The company pays all premiums.

Only 8 percent of U.S. companies paid all health insurance premiums for workers and families last year, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute's Paul Fronstin.

There's company-paid disability and life insurance at Firaxis. Dollar-for-dollar match on the 401(k) plan up to 3 percent of salary. Fully-paid health club membership. The Cokes are 25 cents out of the office machines. Company happy hours. Free lunch every other Monday; free breakfast every other Wednesday.

"It's almost like being in Sweden!" says Sid Meier, the legendary computer-game developer who, with Briggs, is a Firaxis owner.

Average base salaries are $60,000 a year. And -- this is the best part -- Firaxis shares a big chunk of its corporate earnings with all workers on top of that. In a good year even lower-level employees get tens of thousands of dollars in profit-sharing bonuses. (It takes three years' tenure to fully participate.)

"We give away a lot of profit from the company, and that has worked very well because it focuses everybody" on results, says Briggs, who has a doctorate in music composition and who gives workers the added (incalculably valuable) benefit of reporting to a CEO who looks like an extra from a Hell's Angels movie.

How much profit is shared?

"It's substantial."

How much? Double-digits? Over 10 percent?

"Yeah, it's over 10 percent."

Not surprisingly, turnover is practically nil. "They're exceptional -- they really are," says art manager Jerome Atherholt, 48, who has been there seven years. "They're the best people I think I've ever worked for."

Some of the Firaxis benny package is routine for technology outfits, which try to foster cool, enlightened reputations to lure top talent. Firaxis has the billiard and air-hockey tables seemingly required by law at all software companies, and free coffee. But it goes further than it has to.

Programmer Jake Solomon, 27, once worked at Intel Corp., and "at Intel they always had good benefits, but Firaxis is really kind of above and beyond," he says. "To talk about how extreme the benefits are here, you also get four weeks of paternity leave; that's the sort of thing you don't find very often." (Actually, it's three weeks. Firaxis has some limits.)

It all seems almost excessive. Firaxis can afford all this and still reward shareholders because it is obviously very profitable. Counting the basic game and upgrades, Civilization has sold some 2.2 million copies, and titles such as Gettysburg! and Alpha Centauri have sold tons, too.

Firaxis also has the huge advantage of being closely held. Briggs, Meier and a third owner, former New York investment banker Jonathan Plutzik, needn't worry about mutual- and pension-fund managers hassling them over costs.

But it's clear that they have a choice, and they have made an unusual one: Giving workers a much bigger slice of the fruits of capital than other corporations do. I can't believe free health-club membership makes the games that much better.

Perhaps Firaxis really is unique. But you tell me. Message me about pay, benefits and attitude at your employer -- really good or really bad:

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