Fran Rodgers has grown a business -- and pioneered an entire industry -- by selling new ways for corporations to help their employees manage their lives
Socially Responsible Entrepreneur of the Year
An individual who uses his or her entrepreneurial skills to help solve societal problems
Fran Sussner Rodgers
Work/Family Directions, Boston
Provider of referral services for work-and-family issues
Founded in 1983
$44.2 million in 1993 revenues
$7 million in 1993 profits
Patagonia, Ventura, Calif.
Founded in 1972
$125 million in 1993 revenues
1993 profits not available
Laura Scher and Peter Barnes
Working Assets, San Francisco
Founded in 1985
$35.8 million in 1993 revenues
$2.7 million in 1993 profits
White Dog Enterprises, Philadelphia
Founded in 1983
$3.6 million in 1993 revenues
$0.3 million in 1993 profits
In the door to Fran Rodgers's office is a sign in a child's magic-marker scrawl: "President Fran's Office -- Otherwise Known as Mom." The sign is fitting for a woman who easily wears a fuchsia silk power suit one day and khakis and a wool sweater the next. It's appropriate for 48-year-old Rodgers, whose business, Work/Family Directions, unites the two worlds of work and family as adeptly as she unites them personally.
Rodgers is rarely called an entrepreneur. She is known as America's foremost expert on work-and-family issues because her Boston-based business so ably addresses a subject previously relegated to social-services agencies. Yet by identifying and capitalizing on a profound shift in the way big corporations handle human-resources (HR) issues such as elder care and family dysfunction, Rodgers has grown a profitable $50-million company in a decade.
The irony is that if Rodgers sold, say, lug nuts, she'd probably be on the cover of a business magazine like Inc. for her company-building exploits alone. Here is a woman who has shaped a company that employs hundreds without committing the sins so often characteristic of high-growth companies: neglecting product quality, losing customer focus, losing sight of the company's original vision. Recently, Work/Family made Working Woman's list of the best companies for women to work for -- for the third straight year. Last year IBM recognized Work/Family for being one of its top-quality vendors, partly because of Rodgers's innovative technique for tracking the performance of each of her employees by polling Work/Family customers.
But the human side of Rodgers's work puts the focus more squarely on her pioneering of an entire industry -- a $500- million-a-year-plus industry whose many companies now provide work-and-family referral services to large companies. Rodgers's clients pay $15 to $25 for each employee; any employee who then needs to find child care or help for an elderly parent who's broken a hip, or who wants to know whether a child might qualify for financial aid for college, just calls Work/Family.
All of which makes Rodgers insightful and outspoken on the contradictions of being socially responsible -- and on the business of growing a business in such a business. Here's what she has to say:
On Social Responsibility
The work my company does is socially responsible in that it contributes not only to business results but also to society. But that's not why our clients choose us. They buy our services primarily to enhance their profitability and performance. The danger of being seen as socially responsible is that people believe it's inconsistent to be both socially responsible and also very much alive to bottom-line results.
Our work is about showing people that work-life issues are not marginal. Work-life issues are relevant when you restructure. They are relevant when you go global, when you're downsizing, when you're reengineering, and when you're redesigning benefits. To the extent that socially responsible concepts are seen as the nice thing to do, as opposed to the relevant thing to do, it's not so good for me to be seen in that light. In fact, if clients see my work as irrelevant to getting business results, their employees will not be well served in the long run because the companies won't be examining the basic business rationale for those socially responsible decisions.
You cannot make business decisions about competing in today's world without considering the people who have to "buy" the change and deliver results. I see this as an ecological problem. If you can figure out how to compete and figure out how your people will help you do it, you'll be way ahead of the game. Companies that are reengineering and then realize they're having a motivation problem are only halfway there.
Most companies make one of two mistakes when they think about their employees. Some look only at demographics. They say, "Here's how the population is changing, here's what people say they want, so I'll make changes regardless of whether it'll get me business or not." That is addressing work-family as an HR strategy unrelated to the business. The other mistake is to have every consultant in the world tell you what you have to do to compete -- but ignore the needs of the people who will get you there. That's the way it is very often in large companies because they tend to draw lines between HR and strategy.
On Managing People Today
Smart companies acknowledge that with dual-income families, women in the workforce, and other changes, people have more family issues. Those companies know that to attract and keep employees, they need to provide different kinds of benefits. You don't have to look too far to know that people can take only so much change before they crack. Employees get sick, they give a marginal performance, they snap at the next customer.
Work/Family believes that if you reach people early as they face changes in life and give them good information and empower them with basic support, you end up with a good outcome. For instance, an employee may be having trouble with a child who is biting. The employee can call here and speak to somebody who ran a day-care center for 10 years and who has probably seen that behavior 150 times and can explain how to correct it.
On Inventing an Industry
Initially, I didn't know the difference between getting a grant and starting a business. I started researching work-family issues when my first child was born, in 1978. I had a part-time job at an educational consultancy when my baby daughter became sick with severe asthma. Even though I had child care in place, I had to be more flexible, so I set out consulting on my own at home.
Work/Family really started in 1983 when IBM was looking for a way to address the needs of its changing workforce. I had just concluded several studies and knew a lot about that field -- which wasn't much, because there wasn't much to know. At that time if you did five projects in the field, you practically knew it all. There were three of us in the country working in it. IBM needed basic child-care referral services. I told IBM there was no way to help people without making a significant investment in creating more child care, developing more resources, and improving the quality of the services offered.
Setting up a business in this field in 1983 meant literally defining the industry: setting standards, getting a customer focus, finding people who could do the work. It was an incredible task. In Boca Raton, Fla., IBM had roughly 12,000 employees and access to only 17 known slots in day care. So we had to go out and recruit day-care providers. We advertised on billboards; we handed out flyers at lunchtime in supermarkets because we thought people shopping in the middle of the day might be home with kids and interested in providing care for a few others. We went to birthing classes and told mothers-to-be, "If you're thinking of staying home with this child, here's a way to do it -- by caring for others as well."
On Unconsciously Growing a Company
Between 1983 and 1987 we grew slowly because we made no effort to grow. Initially, we said we'd offer child-care-related products only. We added elder care several years later. In 1987 we started picking up clients: Xerox, American Express, NationsBank, NCR. We didn't seek customers. They still primarily came to us. But we still had to prove the quality and seriousness of purpose of some of our services. A lot of people didn't buy them because they couldn't convince their companies that work-and-family services were a business issue.
In 1990 I did the first thing that took total guts: expanding our services without knowing if anyone would buy them. For years I'd been talking about work-and-family issues, and I felt stupid that all we did was focus on child care and elder care with nothing in the middle. So we began to deal with education issues for kids, with helping people get through the adoption process, and with the whole area of adult disabilities -- your wife gets multiple sclerosis, your son tells you he has AIDS. These are big-league, brutal things, and people need a lot of help with them.
In 1992 we began a major service redesign that resulted in the launching of LifeWorks. Before then, our programs were called family resources, elder care, child-care resources, and referral. The LifeWorks program is the new umbrella for everything we do, which is to help people deal with transitions over an entire life cycle.
On Deliberately Growing a Company
Since 1986 I've really understood the power of the business. Before then I was growing the company without really knowing what I was doing. I wasn't that conscious of its being a business; I was just conscious of filling a need. Then I started to realize that the business was something big that I could grow. As the company got bigger on its own I started to see the possibility of controlling where I was going instead of responding. Previously, I was kind of a reluctant capitalist.
Two and a half years ago I realized that I needed a president. I started to feel as if I didn't quite know how to get the organization ready for its next stage. I felt satisfied with things in their own silos; the product was good, and the people were all good. But the company -- it was already a $30-million business -- lacked cohesion. This was big-league stuff -- and I had to professionalize it without losing it.
I knew that to grow the company I had to hire people who had grown businesses. Previously, I let everybody who was here kind of grow into whatever jobs had to be done; it was painful to bring in outsiders to do things that insiders had been doing. Our current president had worked at several high-tech companies. Our chief financial officer is a Harvard Business School graduate who was a finance person at several software companies, including Oracle. I've also brought in a head of marketing who had been at Lotus. Our management information systems head had been at Bendix. Now we have a really good team to go forward with. Ours could easily be a several-hundred-million-dollar company. With the sales force we're assembling, we haven't even started.
On Walking the Talk
We try to be flexible. Our goal is to have people take responsibility for showing us how the work will get done and how the business will be positively affected. Employees design their schedules, within reason. We also offer profit-sharing bonuses; we've done it every year.
But practicing what you preach is very hard. For instance, people come here expecting us to say yes to whatever they want to do to be responsive to their families. Well, sometimes it doesn't work for the business. I once had 10 people who wanted to take the same vacation week during a peak in customer demand. People are shocked when you say no. We try to say yes whenever we can figure out a way -- as long as we can still get results. Like everybody else, we've had to learn that as we go along.