THE PROBLEM: Attracting top tech people to a small city -- and keeping them there
THE PRACTICE: Every serious job candidate spends a week test-driving the company and the locale
THE PAYOFF: A stellar 1% turnover rate

Oklahoma City is not the nation's high-tech mecca, and Gary Nelson, CEO of Advanced Financial Solutions (AFS) (#491), is the first to say so. But persuading high-quality technology professionals to join his staff isn't as daunting as you might expect. Nelson is confident that his company and the city it's located in will impress most job seekers if he can just get them to give the town a chance.

So Nelson invites job candidates to spend a week in Oklahoma City -- before he puts a job offer on the table. "We open the kimono, if you will," he says, describing an unusually revealing recruitment process that makes sure top prospects get an up-close-and-personal look at the $60- million software company. The exact schedule is flexible, but prospective employees visit all departments and meet everyone from the CEO to the secretaries. Meanwhile, volunteers from AFS's staff and their families help spouses check out schools, housing, and whatever else might be important to them if they decide to resettle in America's heartland.

Gary Nelson invites job candidates to spend a week in Oklahoma City -- before he puts Sa job offer on the table.

Nelson says that the program is completely homegrown. He traces it to a brainstorming session that took place at the height of the dot-com boom. AFS was getting as many as 50 résumés a day, but managers were uneasy about how AFS would stand up against the competition. Many applicants were recent college graduates, not just from the United States but from around the globe. The best were sure to get job offers from companies in sexier locations, like New York City or Silicon Valley. Would AFS be out of the running when that happened? And of those recruits who decided to join AFS, would some go into culture shock after moving to Oklahoma City?

AFS's extended-visit program is a way of testing whether job candidates, the company, and the city are all a good fit. Applicants who participate in the program have already gone through lengthy phone interviews and detailed reference checks. At week's end, neither AFS nor a candidate is obliged to do anything. Occasionally, candidates say they couldn't live in Oklahoma City, and Nelson thanks them for their honesty. Others are surprised at how affordable and family-friendly the city is. Many employees, especially those who have resettled from such crowded places as cities in Brazil and Singapore, appreciate the panoramic landscape where, in Nelson's words, "you can look south and see Dallas or look north and see Wichita."

AFS has grown from about 60 to 190 employees during the past three years, and every person hired during that time has gone through the try-before-you-buy process, even Oklahoma natives. Would-be customer-service representatives, engineers, project managers, and vice-presidents of sales and marketing all get the same treatment.

As a result, Nelson claims, AFS enjoys a 1% turnover rate. The cost of the wait-and-see tack: about $7,500 per hire, not counting headhunters' fees. That's minuscule compared with the price of hiring the wrong people, says Nelson: "You can't put a price tag on aggravation and grief."


Please e-mail your comments to