The No. 1 midsize place to work in IT: Credit Acceptance

Recent college grad Lauren Delisle interviewed at Credit Acceptance two years ago at the suggestion of a friend, with little expectation of leaving her job in product support. But once the interviewer started talking about the company's PRIDE values and its "Big Hairy Audacious Goals" to hit a stock price of $1,000 per share, to sell 1 million auto loans and to be a top 10 place to work -- Delisle knew she had stumbled upon an organization with a serious plan for growth.

Instead of a cutthroat and competitive environment, however, Delisle found the Credit Acceptance culture to be casual and collaborative. After the company security guard gave her a friendly shout out by name when she returned for a second interview, Delisle, now 25, was convinced she had found a match.

"I liked that everyone in the company is chasing after a shared goal -- it didn't seem like your average work environment where everyone works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is done," says Delisle, who was promoted from the IT help desk to a business intelligence analyst position after a little more than a year. "Everyone comes together and works together regardless of their skill level."

That collaborative spirit is just one of the attributes that helped the 1,500-person Southfield, Mich., auto financing company claim the honor of being the No. 1 midsize employer on Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT list for the second year in a row.

Unlike other companies that pay lip service to creating a high-performance, team-based atmosphere, Credit Acceptance is the real deal, according to IT managers and employees, who cite the company's efforts to foster a listening culture in which people endeavor to be positive, respectful, insightful, direct and earnest -- and thereby uphold Credit Acceptance's five core values, as embodied in the acronym PRIDE.

"Every company strives to be a meritocracy, but a lot of things can get in the way some personal and some political," says CIO John Soave. "Credit Acceptance is a place where performance is recognized and people are given opportunity. We listen to employees and try to remove any roadblocks so they can succeed."

A 13-year veteran of Credit Acceptance, Soave is one of the employees who was given an opportunity to succeed. He came up through the analytics and sales ranks and now, as CIO for the past three years, manages a $31 million budget and oversees a growing IT team that is currently made up of 175 people.

For Dragon Stevanovic, lead enterprise business systems database administrator, a six-month contract assignment turned into a permanent job 15 years ago, and he has never looked back. The opportunity to take part in sophisticated data reporting projects and work with the latest tools -- most notably, Oracle Database 12c, Oracle's E-Business Suite release 12 and VMware -- make the job interesting and keep his engagement level high. "I feel comfortably challenged here. I work on great projects with great technology and great people," says Stevanovic, 51. "I don't see myself leaving."

Promoting participation in employee-run committees is one way Credit Acceptance fosters a grassroots culture and embraces its PRIDE values, according to Kelli Gilpin, who came on board a few months ago as the company's first employee engagement manager. Those committees include the Great Place to Work committee, whose members try to come up with ideas for further improving the company's work environment, and groups that promote health and wellness, organize social events and community service initiatives, and pursue a wide range of other interests and issues.

Kristopher Brosnihan, who joined Credit Acceptance six months ago and whose wife also works at the company, says his new employer offers a winning combination of a laid-back atmosphere and a team-based culture. Nerf gun fights, March Madness basketball shoot-outs, and decked-out cubicles with giant blow-up palm trees provide a nice counterbalance to the serious side of deploying technology.

"It's like we're the Google of subprime auto financing," says Brosnihan, 32, a business analyst for the IT department's sales experience team. "We're here to do serious work, but there's still a fun aspect."

While the committees tackle their share of lighter causes championing perks like gym memberships and free high-bandwidth Wi-Fi for streaming media in the office -- they also take on serious projects like food drives and other charitable efforts. One group recently sponsored a water drive to help the citizens of nearby Flint, Mich., where high levels of lead have been found in the public water supply.

But it takes more than an enjoyable atmosphere and a commitment to the community to make a company one of the Best Places to Work in IT. For many people, a solid benefits package is a priority when it comes to evaluating prospective employers, and Credit Acceptance succeeds on that score, offering perks such as a 401(k) matching contribution, 19 days of paid time off during the first year of employment, college tuition reimbursement, profit-sharing and merit bonuses, and benefits for parents who are adopting children.

Ensuring that employees have a voice in everything from potential benefits programs and community service projects to new business initiatives is one of the principles ingrained in the Credit Acceptance culture.

In fact, the PRIDE values themselves were born out of feedback from employees who were asked what kind of team members they'd like to work with, rather than a mandate from the C-suite. "Whenever something is driven from the bottom up versus a leader telling you what to believe or how to act, it creates a different vibe," Gilpin says. "People organically buy into PRIDE because it came from them."

A lot of the feedback comes from companywide surveys and town hall meetings. Once a quarter, all employees are asked for ideas on how to improve the work environment. CEO Brett Roberts addresses each submission in writing in advance of a town hall meeting where employees get to vote on which ideas should get top priority. Executives are held accountable for explaining why an issue or suggestion will or will not be acted upon.

In IT, new team members are asked about their recruiting experience and onboarding process. And IT regularly canvasses users throughout the company to get feedback on its performance and suggestions for improvements.

Over the course of several town hall meetings, IT employees voiced a desire for more business training and career development opportunities. Management responded by setting up a series of presentations by business leaders and providing access to a variety of outside leadership training programs, Soave says.

In another case, a question about whether IT management was delegating adequately gained enough consensus that changes were eventually made, including establishing committees and presentation forums to make it easier for junior team members to participate in decision-making.

"In most companies, managers are the masters of the domain and give employees direction," says Darryl Beck, 40, manager of enterprise shared services, who joined Credit Acceptance about a year ago, after spending 12 years as an IT consultant working on-site at many companies. "Here, the team has ownership, and management is very open to new ideas."

Performance evaluations, done twice annually, are viewed as an exercise in listening and a way to help employees reach their goals. Delisle experienced the collaborative nature of the Credit Acceptance performance evaluation process shortly after her first one-on-one meeting with a new supervisor, where she mentioned her desire to be promoted within a year.

The supervisor responded by letting her know about big projects that could win recognition, and the cooperative approach paid off. "It was like a team effort," Delisle says. "I could tell he was giving me a push to help me go get my goals."

Credit Acceptance's regular town hall meetings also serve as a forum for recognizing employees who go the extra mile, both in their work and in demonstrating the company's PRIDE values.

Brandon Brubaker, 31, a business analyst on IT's sales experience team who's been with Credit Acceptance for four and a half years, received a PRIDE award last September for his work as part of a team that created a mobile app for the sales department. Aware of the need to get the app up and running quickly, Brubaker and several colleagues worked together to provide user support for it, including hosting daily webinars to make sure everyone was sufficiently trained prior to the formal launch.

"It's gratifying to know the level of work you do is recognized at a high level, not just within the department, but companywide," says Brubaker. "Your peers know you are working hard for a common goal, and it gets everyone on the same page as to how you want to do things and treat customers."

As part of an initiative called Workplace Heroes, the company likewise uses town hall meetings to call attention to employees who inspire, like Hong Fu. A senior developer on Credit Acceptance's loan servicing systems team, Fu grew up in China during the 1960s Cultural Revolution, eventually working her way into a top-tier U.S. engineering program and a successful career in IT.

Rael Mussell, 40, vice president of IT support, takes Credit Acceptance's commitment to its people very personally. A couple of years ago, Mussell's wife got sick, and when he told his boss, he was encouraged to take all the time off he needed. "I didn't come back to work for two months, and they didn't skip a beat," he says. "Everyone just kept asking how my wife was doing -- that's just the culture we have."

Next: The No. 1 small place to work in IT: Axxess


Beth Stackpole

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