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The panel

Comcast's senior vice president of the greater Chicago region Leann Talbot (upper left), Loyola University President Father Michael Garanzini (upper right), Abt Electronics Co-President Jon Abt (lower right), and Jill Smart, worldwide head of human resources for Accenture (lower left). (Chicago Tribune staff photos)

Jon Abt
Co-president of Abt Electronics

The Abt family, owners of Abt Electronics, has a simple rule: Treat employees like family.

With more than 1,000 employees, that's an awfully big family, but Co-President Jon Abt said a policy of trust and respect has served the company well. In 75 years, it never has had a layoff.

"I think the most important thing is to make sure all employees understand the message we're trying to get across, the corporate mission," Abt said. "Make sure they understand the philosophy of the company so everyone is on the same page. One bad apple can change not only a customer's opinion of our company, but they can also turn other employees into bad apples."

He said all the Abts have an open-door policy and welcome feedback from employees, and they also count on employees to make their own decisions day to day.

"If a customer service representative gets a phone call from an unhappy customer about maybe a price they saw at a competitor or an installation they recently had done, they don't have to run and ask a manger what they can do to fix it," Abt said. "They can make their own decisions and can do what they need to do."

He has found that the more you trust people, the more engaged they are and the harder, and happier, they work.

And the family atmosphere Abt talks about is backed up with actions. If somebody has a baby, a gift goes out. If somebody is in the hospital, one of the Abts will usually go and visit that person.

Abt broke it down to simple human terms: "Be kind to others. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. We started out with three people — my two grandparents and one employee. We've grown over time to become a much larger company, but our values are still very mom and pop-ish. At the end of the day, you treat people the way you expect to be treated and make sure that whatever position they may hold, they understand the position and you give them guidance and nurture them."

The Rev. Michael Garanzini
President of Loyola University Chicago

As the head of a university, Garanzini sees his job as overseeing a corporation and a community.

"We have people that are out there delivering the main product, faculty and people supporting the product, but that model only goes so far," he said. "The other model is like being mayor of a small town, where you have constituencies that come at this with different interests and different motivations."

Garanzini's primary goal, regardless of which model he's dealing with, is this:

"The thing we try hardest at is communication, especially around the vision of the institution, and then transparency about the way the university is run. Keeping folks' morale up is all about clarity and vision, clarity of communication and transparency."

Given the state of the economy, Garanzini believes Loyola employees appreciate knowing that their employer has taken steps to prepare for financial dips.

"We have a very conservative budget model," he said. "I've had a little cushion over these past two years, I've not had to lay people off. The margin's getting thinner, but we still have margins. I think the one thing that you can do is help your employees understand that you're responsible and that you respect them and are being conservative about how you save and how you spend."

Though Loyola is a large and wildly diverse entity, Garanzini believes his philosophies can apply to a business of any size. He offered two specific recommendations:

•"Educate your staff. Don't be afraid to share what you think are the potential tripwires down the road."

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