Cover Story: What's F.A. Davis Doing Right?
It was known as the Green Room, a relic of 1960s-era decorating—felt walls and all—that served for decades as prime meeting space on the first floor of Philadelphia health sciences book publisher F.A. Davis Co. While nobody mourned its passing when it was finally renovated two years ago, it was believed that the demise of the groovy grotto warranted the creation of a commemorative plaque, handed out around the office at the holidays. Amid photos and an actual mounted green wall swatch was engraved a promise to hereby “stop meeting like this.” The plaques do more than inspire an affectionate chuckle. Like the large photo of employees standing in front of company headquarters in 1968 that occupies the wall behind company President Robert H. Craven Jr.’s desk, they serve as a reminder of the unique legacy and continuity of F.A. Davis, one of the few remaining independent health sciences book publishers.
“We have been able to see the dividends that are paid for stability,” Craven says. “I have eight [people who report directly to me] whose average tenure with the company is over 11 years. In most cases, the management team and the acquisition editors … got their love of publishing [working] elsewhere, but got tossed around. Here is a sanctuary for them to enjoy what they came to love about publishing in the first place.”
It also is a place for them to enjoy just going to work, evident in the company’s rank as the No. 1 “Best Book Publishing Company to Work For” this year.
Letting Employees Know They’re a Part of Things
In a volatile publishing market where, lately, anxiety has been the name of the game, F.A. Davis has managed to provide workers with a welcome sense of security. While the down economy has necessitated a hiring and salary freeze, the company—which grew in recent years from about 100 employees in the late ’90s to its current 136—has managed to get by without staff layoffs or payroll reductions.
“We’re under a certain amount of duress like any business,” Craven notes, “but we haven’t had to do any of the invasive maneuvers that would really affect staff.”
In the midst of economic trouble, F.A. Davis’ human resources department has worked to create ever-more creative and sophisticated benefits packages. Recent changes included dropping one of two personal choice health plans and adding a high-deductible plan, with the company paying 75 percent of the deductible. The company also offers an HMO and a point-of-service plan, as well as dental insurance, life insurance, profit sharing and a 401(k) plan that is matched dollar for dollar up to the first 3 percent. “Our benefits are rich, especially for a company our size,” says Crystal Spraggins, human resources director. “In many of the [human resources] decisions that are made, the employees’ point of view is considered, and we try to do a good job of communicating to employees why we do what we do.”
A sign of the comfort employees feel engaging with management is seen in the response rate to frequent internal surveys requesting opinions and feedback—upward of 75 percent to 80 percent, Spraggins says. An open, informal office environment also contributes to employees’ sense that their opinions matter. (“My door is open to everybody,” Craven says.) At the same time, efforts to ensure an open line from management to staff are built into a monthly system of manager’s meetings where budget outlooks are shared with department heads.
Popular with all employees are Half-Day Fridays, where, in exchange for picking up hours on other days, all staff is let out at 12:30 p.m. from April through October. Employees who don’t use the opportunity to get a jump on their weekend often join colleagues at local watering holes, part of what Craven calls an “informal infrastructure” of camaraderie and communication.
A Sport Publishing Execs Can Appreciate
Crowning the celebration of the warmer months is an annual Summer Solstice party, held in the parking lot of F.A. Davis’ distribution center. “It’s a carnival atmosphere,” Craven says. “There are a lot of country fair-like events that take place, a lot of them really specific to publishing.” Games include a yearly tradition that is surely unique in the industry—the “book toss,” which utilizes a damaged copy of the “Davis’s Drug Guide for Nurses.”
“You have to be able to make it slide,” Craven explains, “and you have to get it going quickly so it doesn’t open up, because as soon as it opens up, aerodynamically it fails. So there’s a real trick to it.”
For those fond of more conventional sports, the company offers “sports casual” days, allowing employees to wear the jersey of their favorite team.
Central to the company’s approach is team building among sales staff, which most years means golfing at exotic locales such as the The Broadmoor in Colorado. The “F.A. Davis Scramble” allows even novice golfers to play a role as important team contributors.
A Family Company With Family-Style Values (and Parties!)
Asked to describe the corporate culture, Craven says that F.A. Davis draws character and inspiration from its storied 130-year history (iconic president Irene Craven Davis, who ran the company from 1917 to 1960, was Craven’s great aunt; he is the company’s fourth president), as well as its willingness to embrace new techniques and technologies. The ethos is summed up in a poster displayed in the office, a reproduction of a portrait of Irene Davis in full Edwardian garb “Photoshopped” to show her wearing an iPod and ear buds.
The family heritage continues with Craven’s sons; Robert works in sales, and Matthew, in the IT department. “There is a certain calm that has gone through the organization now that they see succession before their very eyes,” Craven says. “Everybody knows that every other competitor we have has sold out and been reconstituted in a million different ways, and [having my sons working here] gives a reassurance for everybody where the legacy is, and that there’s a commitment. We have had success being independent, and we can be more effective than some of these conglomerates that have been extremely clumsy with mergers and acquisitions.”
For the company’s 125th anniversary, F.A. Davis had a major city thoroughfare closed down for a catered tent party under the stars. A film production company was hired to build a facsimile reproduction of the company’s old building facade, right down to the old-fashioned security tape on faux glass doors. Blown-up pictures of past presidents occupied upper floor windows, reminding all present that this was a celebration of more than just books and buildings.
“We are focused on quality, but we are focused on relationships as well,” Spraggins says. “It just has a more personal feel. People feel that they are not just a cog in a wheel, and the powers that be will not look on them as dispensable commodities. There is a human element that is very apparent here.”