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Indianapolis marketing firm plays 'game' to win: Fun environment helps CIK Enterprises earn reputation as a 'best' place to work, inspires employees to give their all

June 26, 2006

Business is often compared to a game. There are winners and losers, MVPs and benchwarmers, touchdowns and penalties. Only the strong survive.

The leaders at Indianapolis-based CIK Enterprises LLC take the competition seriously. But they don't see why it can't be fun, too.

CIK's 30,000-square-foot Georgetown Road office, known as "the stadium," features green, blue and orange walls, some of which are rounded. Huge puzzle pieces listing company goals decorate the spacious atrium. A life-size Monopoly board displays monumental moments in the company's history.

Visitors beware: Employees often zoom around on scooters or relieve stress by throwing lime green squishy balls.

Co-owner Scott Hill wanted to create a fun-yet driven-atmosphere when he founded the marketing company in November 2000. He and partner Andy Medley, both 30, reinforce the "team" mentality by routinely sharing company results with their 80 employees.

"People want to work toward something where they can see what things are getting done," he said. "We're a candid company and we built a culture around keeping each other accountable."

Something must be working.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce last month named CIK its "best place to work" among the state's small- to medium-sized businesses, and Medley is one of 48 regional finalists for this year's Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

"It's a step, a nice accomplishment," Medley said. "Those awards have to be there to get to where we want to be, but it could really all go away tomorrow."

CIK Enterprises is the parent company of Tri-Auto Enterprises and Trace Communications, sister companies that do printing and direct-mail marketing for automobile dealerships and newspapers.

Hill created Tri-Auto Enterprises in late 2000, and Medley joined him in 2001.

Finding a staff that shared their dream wasn't easy, despite the perks. The unique working environment wasn't for everyone.

"We want people to get a feel for who we are," Hill said. "Some people just want to do their job and that's fine. We just don't want those people."

CIK operates under a "work hard, play hard" philosophy, proving during its first few years that employees could have fun and still get the job done.

In 2005, Inc. magazine rated CIK the 58th-fastest-growing company in the nation. Revenue is expected to reach $32 million this year, up from $700,000 in 2001.

"Direct mail and print isn't new to the world." Medley said. "So we had to provide better customer service, a better product and the person on the phone has to be more educated on the aspects of the game."

Indeed, most employees tend to contribute more when they work in a fun culture, said Kenneth Wendeln, an associate professor at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business in Indianapolis. Those who work in such an environment find it easier to get up in the morning, he said.

But it takes more than scooters and squishy balls to make a good workplace. Openness and trust also are important.

"Uncertainty in a company can compromise that fun culture," Wendeln said. "Companies need to be honest with their employees, tell them what's going on, when it's going to happen and how it impacts everyone."

Show them the moo-lah

Since 2002, Hill and Medley have practiced an open-book management policy, telling employees everything about the financial status of the company. At the end of each quarter, everyone has the opportunity to see the bottom-line results.

Ask the executives what makes their company successful and they answer with ease-their people.

CIK Enterprises wants all its employees, from sales consultants to graphic designers, to enjoy their jobs and feel as if they are contributing to the overall mission and objectives.

Each quarter, the company names a most valuable player, hanging banners with recipients'names from the office ceiling. The winner gets to choose a prize from a list that includes a two-night trip to Las Vegas.

Sales consultant Tonya Ingram won MVP in the first quarter of 2005, about two years after she was hired. She chose the trip to Vegas.

It was nice to be recognized by her bosses and her peers, Ingram said, proving "all my hard work has paid off." Plus, it was a nice incentive beyond the normal paycheck.

Then there are the irreverent "Booby" awards handed out at the company holiday party. Last year, Ingram was named "Most Likely to Wear Her Headset at Home."

Ingram smiles when she talks about her job, saying CIK gives her the opportunity to handle her clients as if it's her own business.

It's this freedom that client Lori Grass said sets CIK apart.

Grass, vice president of marketing and new-business development at Carmelbased CNHI Media, said employees are empowered to solve customers' problem on their own.

"Most companies have their services in a box," Grass said. "There are a lot of folks that say they'll do anything for their clients ... but not a lot of people actually follow through."

Ingram, sitting at her desk with a giant calculator and pink and black fuzzy décor, said her work atmosphere is unlike any other. It's the little things that make CIK more than a job.

"If you have an environment that's tense and structured, that comes across to clients," Ingram said. "We have fun, but people know where to draw the line and when to cross it."

And as if the trips to Vegas and random games of catch aren't enough, Hill and Medley know a little extra dough never hurt anyone.

They have allocated 20 percent of CIK's revenue for an employee "stock" program. Although the company is not public, each employee owns a certain amount of company "stock" depending on how long they've been there.

New employees are given 20 shares of stock, which changes value based on CIK's profits. As the company makes more money, workers get more stock. There are currently 7,000 shares valued at $37.12 a share.

Medley said the phantom stock is a longterm incentive. After seven years on staff, employees can choose to sell their shares back to the company at any time.

CIK employees also receive quarterly bonuses based on company profits. Last year, each worker received $6,600.

Marketing consultant Jamie Welch, who has been with CIK for three years, said she likes how Hill and Medley keep employees updated on the company's well-being. It keeps everyone motivated to do their part.

"You don't want to be the slacker of the group who isn't doing anything," Welch said. "It's almost like we're all part owners of the company."

Take a load off

All work and no play isn't acceptable, either. When CIK employees need to take a breather or fill their stomachs, they can visit a break room like no other. The "Player's Lounge" is equipped with video games, Foosball, a pool table and plasma TV.

On a recent Wednesday, yells from employees playing basketball on the attached mini-court competed with the screams from "Jerry Springer" on the television.

The arcade-like break room came as a shock to some employees, including graphic designer Andrew Vessely.

"I was surprised that they were wiling to do all of this for us," he said. "It's definitely not like a regular job where people go and leave. We have a good time too."

CIK's drive to create an atmosphere that's fun but also gets the job done is what put them on top, said Rebecca Patrick, director of communications for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Most companies try to accomplish this, she said, but CIK takes it to "the ultimate level."

Hill and Medley agree they wanted to be one of the best places to work, but they're not an awards-based company. The plaques and honors simply tell them they are heading in the right direction.

"All we want is to build a large company and have fun," Medley said "If that stops, then we'll stop."


Co-owner Andy Medley believes the workplace should be fun, so CIK Enterprise's Georgetown Road offices have a whimsical air.
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