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Top Midsize Workplace: AutomationDirect.com

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To illustrate his self-description as a tinkerer, Tim Hohmann pulls out a cellphone and punches up photos of an automatic plant-watering system he devised for a hydroponic garden at home. The collection of salad greens and leafy vegetables is maintained at a constant 60 degrees, even during the spate of winter storms.

More signs of Hohmann’s nature are evident at AutomationDirect.com, an industrial products distributor in Cumming that he founded under a previous name in 1994. Tinkering with the standard model for on-the-job environment, Hohmann installed a work/play concept that prompts him to say, with slight exaggeration, “When you walk through here, it’s like a country club.”

Yet Hohmann expects results, and he gets them. His formula, designed to keep employees functioning at a white-hot degree of productivity, has landed the company recognition as the AJC Top Workplace, mid-size segment, for the second time in three years.

Top Midsize Workplace: AutomationDirect.com photo
David Tulis

There is a method to the madness, and it is called Customer Drive Leadership, an approach rooted in the oxymoronic concept of servant-leader. By serving customers and fellow employees, it attests, one can become a leader in shaping vision, promise, profits and core values.

“Best placed I ever worked,” said Herbert Dodd, who turned 67 last month, an age at which he had planned to retire before getting a taste of this outlier.

Dodd is assigned to the logistics “team,” as the units are known in the company’s unique lingo, which calls to mind a university athletics department. Those in charge of the teams are captains. Formal job titles are so frowned upon that Hohmann carries the modest tag of company captain.

Top Midsize Workplace: AutomationDirect.com photo
David Tulis

The work week revolves around Tuesday morning meetings that are attended or followed via video by nearly all of the 240 employees and convey a pep rally aura. They commence with the congregation rising and, hands placed over hearts, belting out the National Anthem as a massive American flag hangs high from a pole just outside.

Recently, the sing-a-long was followed by an update on a popular perk. In a program called DirectWellness, participants accrue points for healthy activities as strenuous as long-distance runs and as benign as drinking bottles of water, with gift cards handed out to those who hit certain thresholds.

The crowd was informed that spouses had become eligible to participate, a move that illuminates Hohmann’s desire to spread the happiness beyond the walls of the buildings to workers’ families.

Top Midsize Workplace: AutomationDirect.com photo
David Tulis

The boss, clad in his typical jeans and pullover shirt, stood and read “love letters” — written testimonials from customers. “I cannot believe how fast and courteous you are,” one gushed. Another observed how the company “puts the jokers I have worked with [elsewhere] to shame.”

Addressing the mid-February winter storm that drove much of the region’s business into a literal deep freeze. Hohmann noted that the wheels there kept turning, thanks to telecommuters as well as hardy souls who mushed to work. (One loaded down the back of his truck with firewood to provide traction on the slippery roads.)

“You guys absolutely rocked,” Hohmann told them after announcing a record day of sales.

Two long-timers who reached anniversary milestones were recognized, followed by a light-hearted ritual of welcoming newcomers, all required to make a presentation of their choosing. One recited an original poem about his duties, the other displayed on a big screen photos borrowed from the family album.

The marketing chief, introducing the latest AutomationDirect T-shirt, ran through all of its predecessors by removing her jacket, then doffing each shirt one-by-one amid laughs and gasps.

There was more back-patting with the display of an award from Forsyth County schools for the company’s involvement in the robotics and Special Olympics programs, plus donations of iPads and other devices. Soon, it was back to work — until noon-ish, when seemingly half of the personnel engages in a group physical activity or attends a Lunch ‘n Learn class on subjects as varied as using Microsoft Excel to dealing with a parent stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Hohmann is liable to approve any activity — one of the latest: disc golf — in the belief that a midday diversion, physical or mental, reboots the worker. One of the houses on land acquired for expansion was converted into an exercise center, and a fitness trainer is onsite four days each week.

Googling his brain for a supporting statistic, he came up with this: Eight to 10 American workers arrive each morning eager to make a difference in their company’s fate. Come afternoon, the rate drops in half.

Also frequenting the premises is a chaplain, who is on call for special situations. When the infant son of logistics’ Cory Gilleland underwent surgery, the chaplain showed up daily at the hospital.

At the same time, there is an irreverent undercurrent, as reflected in some of the team’s names. Example: CSI, for Computer Software Innovators.

Hohmann shows little inclination to deny expenditures for new or improved tools provided they help boost output.

Chris Harris, leader of the department that chooses products for sale, recalled being equipped with a company credit card, cellphone, laptop and desktop computer within his first week there. “It was overwhelming,” he said, adding that being comparably set up at his previous employer “would have taken an act of Congress.”

Perhaps the most radical aspect of the company’s approach is teammates grading each other every six weeks on such factors as how they interact. Solid scores can bring bonuses, while substandard marks can flush out those who do not fit AutomationDirect’s unusual climate.

“It scared me at first,” Harris said. “It’s a powerful tool, but it works great.”

Product engineer Tim Hanes admitted that evaluating peers is difficult. But he maintains a spread sheet of his marks and reviews them for ideas on how to improve.

Hanes and others acknowledge that the company is not an ideal match for some. For those who do click, said logistics team leader Jim Coon, “You just don’t hear people say, ‘I can’t wait to go home.’ “

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