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The Winners: Alberta’s Best Workplaces 2010

Mar 1, 2010

A peek inside Alberta’s Best Workplaces for 2010

by Anh Chu, Michael McCullough, Scott Messenger and Stephanie Sparks

Best Overall Workplace (100-750 employees)

The Sovereign General Insurance Company

First impressions can make or break a relationship. Wendy Abrey, receptionist at the Sovereign General Insurance Company for the past 15 years, effortlessly puts me at ease. The warm, petite blonde could instantly be my friend and confidante.

Headquartered in Calgary, Sovereign is part of the Co-operators Group, a public company controlled by 45 Canadian co-operatives and credit unions. The company sells commercial insurance to businesses with complex needs. It’s risk-management that requires a technical yet creative staff.

“We’re more than just an insurance company,” says COO Rob Wesseling. Wesseling cites the company’s overarching vision of “behaving in the best interest of Canadians and Canadian communities” as a daily motivator to go to work. In the early 2000s, while competitors exited difficult lines of business, Sovereign chose to remain and help rehabilitate those industries, even though leaving would have meant a better bottom line in the short term.

In Calgary, Sovereign shares office space with the Co-operators’ western commercial operations. This association bodes well for employees as a transparent hiring process means a flexibility to transfer between the companies’ branches nationally. Sovereign also woos and retains staff with opportunity for growth.

Manager of human resources Cheryl Dunn had a habit of switching jobs every three years prior to working at Sovereign. “The job grew with me. I didn’t need to go somewhere else,” says a grateful Dunn who has now been with the company for 21 years. “I worked part time while my children were young and now I’ve got a phenomenal career.”

Dunn’s trajectory is far from exceptional. Murray Houck was also an admitted job jumper – “I get bored every five years,” he quips – who started at Sovereign’s Winnipeg branch in business development. Ten years later, Houck is the assistant vice-president of broker relations and corporate marketing and gladly commutes to work daily from Canmore.

Karl Brown has also been with the company for 10 years, but he prefers to jump from department to department; so far, he’s had stints in accounting and underwriting and currently works in systems. “I haven’t gone to the claims department yet. That’s next year,” Brown jokes.

Feedback from employees is encouraged and acted upon, such that a plan Wesseling had drafted for the board of directors was modified because of employee dialogue. “My expectation of staff and their expectation is that they can tell me, ‘I think that’s the wrong decision.’ I hear that quite a bit actually,” Wesseling says. “That’s an important part of our culture, to challenge each other.”

The other upsides are plenty: an emphasis on work/life balance; a commitment to environmental sustainability; a generous benefits package; paid days off to volunteer; comprehensive training and development. It’s clear why so many staff have had their entire careers play out at Sovereign.

I see Abrey on my way out. Ten years ago she filled out an employee survey that asked employees what would make them leave the company. “I said, either a really large lottery,” Abrey recalls, “or else it’ll have to be a pine box.”

Best WORKPLACE FOR VOLUNTEERISM and COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

Devon Canada Corporation

Leading by example, Devon Canada Corporation president Chris Seasons is a mainstay – like the rest of senior management – on Calgary’s philanthropic scene, pitching in with the United Way, the Days of Caring program and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. But giving isn’t merely an executive activity at the energy company. The Devon Volunteer Network recognizes the efforts of employees like drilling engineer Brandt Tracey. Here’s how Devon helps him help others.

I’m a scout leader with Scouts Canada, with Calgary’s New Brighton 256th troop. We’re dealing with young men, ages 12 to 14, and we’re up to a troop of 11 or 12. Part of my role is just getting these kids outdoors and realizing there’s more to life than a video game console and a TV. It’s amazing how fast these young guys mature. Knowing that I’m part of their learning process and teaching them skills they’re going to have for the rest of their lives, I take a great amount of pride in that.

Last April, the Devon Volunteer Network chose me as the Community Spirit Award winner for the year and a big part of that was a $3,000 donation towards my scout troop. That enabled us to go on one of the best summer camps these guys have ever been on, out to Moyie Lake, just west of Cranbrook in B.C.

We don’t have a lot of money so we try to do things on the cheap. Most of our camps operate on a bartering system. Last winter we went out near Golden, and the deal for staying on the land involved some work. The lodge out there is totally off the grid so they need firewood to keep everything going. It was our job to fell trees, buck up the wood, carry it to the lodge, split and stack it. We gave a day and a half of work just to get a half-day worth of play. For the summer camp at Moyie Lake, we told the kids, “We got this money and you guys aren’t going to have to do the work to reap the benefits. We’re just going to go out and have a fun camp.”

There’s no way we could have done that without the donation from Devon. We would have gone broke trying. And there’s still some money left over. The Community Spirit Award was above and beyond my expectations. You get hit with this $3,000 cheque and all of a sudden you just start daydreaming of all the possibilities.

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