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August 2019

2019 Best Companies to Work for in Alabama

Edward Jones Alabama associates participating in the Alzheimer’s Association annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s®.

Broker Firm Edward Jones Retakes Top Ranking Among Big Companies

Edward Jones again is ranked as No. 1 in the large company category of the Best Companies to Work for in Alabama competition, for the third time in the last five years. Regional Leader Jason Kozon, who is a Foley-based financial advisor for the nationwide financial services leader, credits the 97-year-old company’s focus on its employees, clients and the communities it serves. “Employees own the company, so there’s not stockholder pressure for higher and higher profits,” Kozon says of the Fortune 500 company.

Leadership is provided by those who have spent years in the ranks of Edward Jones and have a vested loyalty to the company and its client-centered philosophy. Kozon had praise for top leaders throughout the company’s history and says Edward Jones’ new Managing Partner Penny Pennington is bringing new vision and vitality to the firm. “We are fortunate to have had exceptional leadership during our long history,” he says. “Edward Jones continues to expand and promote from within.”

Benefits provided by the company — including medical, dental, vision and long-term care insurance; paid parental leave for births or adoptions; and tuition reimbursement as well as 401(k) and profit sharing — typically exceed industry standards, Kozon says, and have been expanded and improved over time. One of the top benefits, however, is that financial advisors have the potential of becoming partners in the firm. “Edward Jones takes well care of us so we can take well care of our clients,” Kozon says.

Each Edward Jones office consists of a financial advisor and one or more administrative staff members. Although offices are independent with much autonomy, there is plenty of company communication and support, especially on the regional level, where training and mentorship is ongoing, Kozon says.

“We all want each other to do well because we all benefit from each other’s success,” Kozon says. “It’s collaboration among Edward Jones offices, not a competition.”

Employee solidarity is also built through group activities, such as associates participating in Alzheimer’s Association fundraisers. Edward Jones, the first national presenting sponsor for the Alzheimer’s Association annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s, raised $3.3 million in 2018 through its 3,578 teams across the country. The firm’s total contributions last year topped $6 million, surpassing its 2017 contributions of $4.8 million. “We feel fulfilled to be a part of combined efforts that make such an impact,” Kozon says. “Working together we can do so much good.”

Edward Jones
Jason Kozon, Financial Adviser/Regional Leader
22394 Miflin Rd., No. 202, Foley, AL 36535
Phone: 251-943-3399  |  Fax: 888-860-6265
edwardjones.com

RunnersUp Among Big Companies

JHA Birmingham employees at a recent employee appreciation event.

2. Jack Henry & Associates Inc.

Jack Henry & Associates Inc., a national provider of technology solutions and payment processing services primarily for the financial services industry, has made a conscious effort in recent years to enhance its employee experience, and the strategy is paying off in employee engagement and retention numbers, says Ashley Hogan, human resources business partner, senior manager.

Whenever possible, the company tries to promote from within and has a company department devoted to that effort. “Our CEO and executive leadership team know our employees are our company’s greatest asset and want to treat our employees with the same level of caring as our clients,” Hogan says. “Our motto is ‘Do the right thing’ and that goes for everyone we serve.”

Among company perks are spot and annual bonuses, as well as quarterly and annual employee recognition programs. Benefits continue to improve based on changes requested by employees in periodic company surveys, Hogan says. One example is the expansion of paid leave for births and adoptions for both mother and father. Another is the removal of the salary cap on the company’s 6 percent company match on 401(k) contributions. “We are continually looking for new and better ways to meet the needs of our employees,” Hogan says.

Rick Keith, Regional Sales
7400 Cahaba Valley Rd., Birmingham, AL 35242-6306
Phone: 205-981-1980  |  Fax: 417-235-4281
jackhenry.com

Employees recognized for years of service during the 2019 Service Awards Banquet.

3. America’s First Federal Credit Union

America’s First Federal Credit Union, a Birmingham-based community credit union with 19 branches in Alabama, has this year begun offering a popular new employee benefit: access to medical clinics where employees pay no copays for exams, lab work or prescriptions. “We try to keep abreast of the trends and are always looking for the next great thing to offer our employees,” says Audra Weber, senior vice president and chief people officer for the credit union.

Morale boosters include the annual company picnic, which has been held at Oak Mountain and Regions Field. Periodic competitions can pay off with an extra vacation day for the winner. Cash bonuses are provided when certain goals are met, Weber says. “We try to be creative so that our employees better enjoy their work and understand we appreciate their hard work,” she says.

Employees are encouraged to volunteer and are provided with up to 8 hours of paid time off to do so. Tuition reimbursement is available at up to 100 percent, depending upon employee grades. Professional development is offered through three continuing education tracks, including one that develops branch managers.

“We look for people who fit our customer-service culture and help them to be the best they can be, promoting from within whenever possible,” Weber says.  

Bill Connor, President/CEO
1200 4th Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35203
Phone: 205-320-4000  |  Fax: 205-325-3979
amfirst.org

When you achieve a commission milestone at Total Quality Logistics, you receive a jersey. Not only do the jerseys say “thank you” for the hard work, they serve as a symbol of achievable success for junior sales brokers.

4. Total Quality Logistics

National business-to-business freight movement company Total Quality Logistics (TQL) emphasizes clear communication as being a core value of the company, says Group Sales Manager Mackenzie Collins, who is based in Spanish Fort. “One of the reasons our founder and CEO Ken Oaks started TQL was because he was frustrated with the lack of communication and transparency in the transportation industry,” Collins says. “To keep the lines of communication open, our CEO sends out a daily email to everyone in the company with pertinent information for our teams.”

The growing company provides attractive rewards to its hardworking employees, Collins says. “Our HR and employee engagement teams focus on offering the best benefits to our employees,” she says. “From great insurance and 401K matching programs to intramural sports leagues, free meals, work-from-home days and corporate discounts, we make sure our employees have plenty of perks.”

TQL tries to promote from within, Collins says. “We are constantly creating new roles and establishing new leaders as we see fit for our growing company,” she says. “Additionally, TQL doesn’t promote on tenure but on performance, which is a driving force for our younger team players. Promoting managers from within the team sets up our teams for success.”

Mackenzie Collins, Group Sales Manager
26000 Bass Pro Dr., Bldg. E200, Ste. 214, Spanish Fort, AL 36527
Phone: 800-580-3101  |  Fax: 513-722-7534
tql.com

The Montgomery Accounting Services Division hosted a stress buster cookout lunch for the office. They did the grillin’ and the rest of the office did the chillin’.

5. Warren Averett

The leadership of Warren Averett, a major regional accounting and advisory firm, makes it a priority to help employees create and maintain a healthy work/life balance in addition to offering attractive benefits, says Chief Executive Officer Mary Elliott. That can be particularly difficult during the busy tax season each year. One strategy is to allow staff to access the resources of the firm’s Destin office during spring break so they can get to the beach while keeping their work flow going. “Back in the day, a CPA never could go on spring break,” Elliott says. “We try to provide as much flexibility as possible so that employees are able to enjoy being with family and friends.”

To keep long-term staff members fresh and retention high in an industry where burnout is common, Warren Averett provides a month-long paid sabbatical — in addition to vacation time — after 10 years of service. Then the employee is given the month-long perk after each five years of additional service. “As you can imagine, that has been tremendously popular,” Elliot says. Another strategy is to allow team members to career shift in-house when positions are available rather than having to leave the firm to follow a new interest.

Mary Elliott, CEO
2500 Acton Road, No. 200, Birmingham, AL 35243
Phone: 205-979-4100  |  Fax: 205-979-6313
warrenaverett.com

MAX team members volunteer at a local food pantry.

6. MAX Credit Union

MAX Credit Union works hard to keep its employees, says Chief Talent Officer Sandra Stenger. She points to the average tenure of staff members being greater than 10 years and the average tenure of credit union leadership greater than 20 years. Training and professional development for employees and “onboarding” mentoring of new employees is ongoing with an eye to future career paths, Stenger says. “We try to develop our staff members and promote from within,” she says. “Many of our senior leaders started out as tellers.”

The credit union intranet, including a social media type platform, and quarterly coffee meetings called “breaking grounds,” keep staff members in the loop, says Vice President of Organizational Development Lynnette Cupps.

Employees who are observed providing above-and-beyond service that demonstrates organizational core values are recognized with badges on social media. Staff members are encouraged to offer new ideas for benefits and the like. “We want to keep the lines of communication open and honest with communication going both ways to and from top down,” Cupps says. Based on staff member requests, for example, leave benefits for births and adoptions have been greatly expanded, now including leave for grandparents, as well as mothers and fathers.

Martin Head, Interim CEO
P.O. Box 244040, Montgomery AL 36124
Phone: 334-215-4976  |  Fax: 334-215-2983
mymax.com

7. Alabama Credit Union

Employees are encouraged to be innovative at Alabama Credit Union, one effort that has helped increase job satisfaction, says Brandi McKinney, assistant vice president for human resources. Research teams and employee think tanks look for ways to keep improving the organization. One group, for example, is considering how to unify the company’s wellness and financial health efforts. “We have seen staff members really break out and shine through their contributions to the teams,” McKinney says.

A popular new benefit is the credit union’s student loan repayment program. After six months, employees are eligible for the benefit, which provides $50 per month toward paying down their loan’s principal. “They still pay their regular payment, but when they see how much is going to paying the principal, shortening the term of the loan, they are thrilled,” McKinney says. Another popular benefit is employee access to telemedicine, a medical visit that requires no copay.

Weekly video broadcasts are used to keep employees engaged and informed. Fun credit union events include the annual employee tailgate, Halloween costume contest and Margarita Monday. Community service is supported through 15 hours of paid leave.

“We want to keep showing our employees we care about them by being both creative and thoughtful,” McKinney says.

Steve Swofford, CEO
P.O. Box 862998, Tuscaloosa, AL 35486-0027
Phone: 205-469-5944  |  Fax: 205-650-1000
alabamacu.com

8. BBB Industries

A collaborative culture without the sharp elbows, a dedicated staff and a work location on the sunny Gulf Coast makes BBB Industries one of the state’s best places to work, according to CEO Duncan Gillis.

BBB Industries is a private company headquartered in Daphne that remanufactures alternators, starters and other parts for OEMs and vehicle after-market industries.

“BBB was founded by a Mobile-based father and his two sons,” he says. “While our company has grown exponentially and evolved over time, it’s important to us that we create a work environment that seeks to maintain our family-centric roots.”

BBB Industries has its own Executive Council that welcomes suggestions from workers. One idea, says Gillis, led to the company establishing a summer hours program where during July and August, staffers can work from home or at the office and log out at 2 p.m., every Friday as long as they work 40 hours that week. The program has proven to increase productivity, he says.

Another new initiative at the BBB Industries’ Daphne office is a pilot program that pairs employees with mentors who can guide them toward their career goals, he says

The employees have health and dental insurance, 10 paid holidays and an employee assistance program. But they also enjoy fun company perks, too, such as birthday lunches, after-hours socials, a Memorial Day cookout and the annual Christmas party at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear.

“BBB wants its employees to feel appreciated,” says Gillis, “to know that they’re valued and reward them for their hard work.”

Duncan Gillis, CEO
29627 Renaissance Blvd., Daphne, AL 36526
Phone: 251-438-2737  |  Fax: 251-438-2828
bbbind.com

9. SH Enterprises

From wellness programs to an employee forum, SH Enterprises Inc. offers several initiatives to make it a desirable place to work.

SH Enterprises, with more than 200 Alabama employees, manages entities that include CENTURY 21 Meyer Real Estate, Meyer Vacation Rentals and Starr Textile Services.

“Perks, benefit packages and competitive pay are hard earned and well deserved for each member of our team,” says SH Enterprises President Michelle Hodges.

The company offers a LiveWell program for employees who want to get healthier. LiveWell includes meal plans, blood pressure checks, gym membership reimbursements and one-on-one meetings with a health coach.

SH Enterprises also holds a Spring Celebration event, where employees can draw for prizes, such as a paid day off with $100.

“We also offer a team lunch every Saturday throughout the summer months and host a Fall Family Fun day at The Track amusement park in Gulf Shores so the entire team and their families can let loose and enjoy activities from go-carts to mini-golf.”

Hodges says one way the company identifies benefit options is through feedback from the Employee Forum Group, comprised of one team member from each company and division. The team meets monthly with the CEO or president to discuss recent news, changes or needs and to pick the “Employee of the Quarter” award winner.

“Engage with your workforce,” Hodges says. “Encourage their feedback on ways to enhance the work environment and remove barriers to help them stay focused on what they can impact.”

Sheila Hodges, Chairman of the Board
1585 Gulf Shores Pkwy., Gulf Shores, AL 36542
800-775-8945  |  251-968-6469
she-inc.net

Some of the Peachtree Planning Birmingham team at a Best Workplaces Event.

Peachtree Planning Tops Among Small and Medium Companies

Ranking top among small to medium companies is Peachtree Planning Corp. LLC, a financial planner with offices in Birmingham, Atlanta and Nashville.

“Our people make the company so outstanding,” says Sara Boudreaux, vice president and head of recruiting and marketing. “The majority of people who work here are people who are referred to work with us, and people who do business with us refer other people to do business with us.

“Our purpose is to help people make impactful financial decisions and to create security,” says Boudreaux. “Most of our advisors feel good at the end of the day because they have made a difference in someone’s life.”

One way Peachtree achieves that is through matching programs for charities and causes that touch the lives of employees and clients — from the Pound the Pavement for Peter run honoring Peter Hopkins who died at 3 from a Peroxisomal Disorder where advisor Sarah Dozier sits on the board, to the Autism Society of Alabama, where advisor Clay McDowell sits on the Junior Board of Birmingham.

In addition to supporting charitable causes in the communities it serves in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, Peachtree also fosters an atmosphere of teamwork within its walls. For birthdays, staff members always decorate the doors of the honoree, showering that person with cards, cake and good wishes. Work anniversaries are recognized throughout the firm, and a Monday morning memo advises all staff of special events, celebrating new babies or sharing the sorrows of those with a sad event.

“Even though we are all throughout the Southeast, we feel like part of a close-knit family,” Boudreaux says. “We get together as an entire firm two times a year for a fun event. We’ve had picnics at Big Canoe (in North Georgia) with families and kids enjoying egg tosses and water balloons. We enjoy seeing how kids have grown over the years, since we don’t see the children of folks in other state offices every often.”

In September, the whole Peachtree team will gather at Chattanooga Brewing Co. in Tennessee. Different offices hold special events throughout the year, but those times as a team, whether annual or every other year, are considered valuable bonding time.

Instead of gifts to one another, the staff gives to someone in need during the holidays, either adopting a family or choosing a charity for contributions. The company matches those staff gifts, including taking part in local charity events or organizing drives for servicemen overseas.

“If we can make a difference for somebody in a positive way, either helping a company with their financials or helping employees and their families create a sense of financial security, we’ve done our jobs,” Boudreaux says. “Because of the way we operate and care about our staff, a lot of people enjoy spending time together and sharing their lives.”

Peachtree Planning of Alabama LLC
Andrew Meehan, President Distribution, Birmingham
2151 Highland Ave., Ste. 100, Birmingham, AL 35205
Phone: 888-232-7151  |  Fax: 205-930-9430
peachtreeplanning.com

RunnersUp Among Small/Medium Companies

Rabren team members at the annual golf tournament.

2. Rabren General Contractors

Begun as a modest general contractor in 2000 in Auburn by Mike and Travis Rabren, and now led by Matt Rabren, Rabren General Contractors has grown into one of the state’s largest privately held general contractors, with experience across the industry.

Che Odom, business process administrator for the firm, says the company stands out because “leadership treats employees like family.”

Leadership is transparent about plans for the future and how employees can help to “get there,” Odom says. That includes annual performance reviews that are tied to compensation increases and Christmas bonuses for a job well done, giving employees both incentive and direction for best success.

Employees take part in a lot of teambuilding, often including families, in events like football games and bowling, a Christmas party and the annual Travis L. Rabren Foundation Fundraising Golf Tournament.

“We are encouraged to grow personally and professionally and are given tools and learning opportunities to do so,” Odom says.

Matt Rabren, President & Chief Executive Officer
306 Persimmon Dr., Auburn, AL 36830
Phone: 334-826-6143  |  Fax: 334-819-1760
rabren.com

Wilkins Miller staffers prepare a fiesta for families at Ronald McDonald House.

3. Wilkins Miller LLC

Wilkins Miller Accounting and Advisory Firm is a full-service accounting firm offering financial advisory, wealth management, IT, forensic accounting, litigation and valuation services.

Of course, that means April looms large on the firm’s calendar, but an emphasis on staff engagement and workplace enjoyment is at the top of Wilkins Miller priorities — from community events like a bowling fundraiser for Junior Achievement and meal preparation for Ronald McDonald House and working with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to costume parties and ugly holiday sweater contests.

“We genuinely care about folks and want to be a great place to work,” says Managing Partner Allen Carroll. “Happy, motivated team members result in great service to clients.”

Beyond offering excellent traditional benefits of insurance and vacation time, the firm believes in flexibility in an age when employees struggle to balance work and home life.

“Organizations that are successful for the long term realize the economy is good, and people have choices. Talent is scarce,” says Carroll. “We serve our clients best by having good folks.”

Allen Carroll, Managing Partner
41 W. I-65 Service Rd. N, Ste. 400, Mobile, AL 36608
Phone: 251-410-6700  |  wilkinsmiller.com

Byars|Wright employees gather for the Spring Family Picnic.

4. Byars|Wright

Since 1946, Byars|Wright has grown from a single office in Jasper to four offices in the greater Birmingham area providing commercial and personal insurance, overseeing risk management and insurance needs for organizations throughout the United States. While its services have grown on a grand scale, the company remains privately owned.

Lacey Rae Visintainer, brand manager, says, “At Byars|Wright, we’re a family — and we’re committed to remaining a locally family-owned and operated business. We understand the human element of business and desire for a well-balanced life and family. We foster that belief through encouraging teamwork, kindness, compassion and a positive culture.”

Visintainer believes the atmosphere of challenging, supporting and encouraging one another draws employees closer, which in turn allows them to go above and beyond for clients.

One big perk is having the weekend begin early. The office closes on Fridays at 3 p.m., because she says, “An extra two hours with family or friends is precious time. We celebrate each other’s victories in both life and work. Co-workers organize luncheons, birthday celebrations, cookouts and more.”

W. Haig Wright II, President, Jasper Office
1700 4th Ave., Jasper, AL 35501
Phone: 205-221-3621  |  byarswright.com

5. The American Equity Underwriters Inc.

The American Equity Underwriters Inc. has decades of experience as the program administrator of the American Longshore Mutual Association Ltd., a group of self-insurance funds authorized by the U.S. Department of Labor to provide member coverage under the United States Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Its members are waterfront employers of all sizes.

Maggie Hudson, marketing strategist, says AEU is a great place to work because it’s open and collaborative on multiple fronts and leadership is always open to ideas from throughout the company.

Michael L. Lapeyrouse, president and CEO, says, “We’ve worked hard to build a culture that truly feels like a family, and that feeling extends beyond our employees to our customers and business partners. We hire employees who embrace this type of culture because families deliver on promises, celebrate successes and do the right thing by each other.”

Commitment to the community also makes an impact. As a corporate sponsor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama, the company allows employees one hour a week to be a “big” for a child at an inner-city school and supports numerous Big Brothers Big Sisters events throughout the year.

“We have a summer Day of Service each year where employees go out into our community and volunteer,” Hudson says. “And then we also have a fun environment with periodic luncheons, fun happy hour events, contests throughout the year, and our company-wide Christmas party. Top it all off with good benefits, fair pay, flexible scheduling for personal events as needed and more and it really makes AEU a fantastic place to work.”

Michael L. Lapeyrouse, Chief Executive Officer
32nd Floor, 11 N. Water St., Mobile, AL 36602
Phone: 251-690-4230  |  Fax: 251-690-4299
amequity.com

6. Hartmann, Blackmon & Kilgore PC

Front and center on the website of accounting and business consulting firm Hartmann, Blackmon & Kilgore, there’s a picture of smiling people with an overlay, “Our team is what makes HB&K different.”

Managing Director Dennis Sherrin, CPA, says, “What makes our company great is the people.  Without a great team that is committed to being better than yesterday, we wouldn’t be a best company.”

HB&K serves clients ranging from small businesses and individuals to governments and multi-national corporations. And according to Kari Wolfe, creative content director, its many services to the community make the company even more remarkable. Its service is headlined by the Steak Cook-Off it presents each year to support a local Rotary group.

“We try to really focus on being forward thinking and innovative,” Wolfe says. “Our busy season is insane hours (tax season runs January through April). Even in the busy season, our firm puts an emphasis on work-life balance” — helping employees stay focused and productive for eight hours rather than working until midnight.

Even during tax season, there are relaxing events. During the rest of the year, there might be a Margarita Friday, food trucks or sports bracket contests.

“We try to get people to really spend time with each other and share about their lives so that you’re working with people who can become more than co-workers,” Wolfe says.

Employees are also encouraged to donate time to the Salvation Army Angel Tree, Baldwin County Humane Society, Boys and Girls Club or other organizations that interest them.

“There are so many charities that need help,” Wolfe says. “What they need most is our time.”

Dennis Sherrin, Managing Shareholder
806 N. Section St., Fairhope, AL 36532
Phone: 251-928-2443  |  Fax: 251-928-6921
hbkcpas.net

7. Avadian Credit Union

If you’ve ever seen the distinctive orange armchair television commercials for Avadian Credit Union, you’ve heard impact stories of how the credit union thoughtfully gives back to the members it serves.

Avadian Credit Union began operations in December of 1934, formerly Alabama Telco, with seven charter members and a capital base of $70. It was formed to serve telephone company employees and their families, but has grown from its original charter to embrace members of the communities it serves.

With its trademark of recognizing individual needs in a “people helping people” way, the credit union makes the Business Alabama list of best places to work, in addition to having earned the 2018 Credit Union Journal Best Places to Work and the Birmingham Business Journal Best Places to Work in 2018.

“Connecting with our community and our employees is an important part of who we are,” says Avadian President and CEO Linda Cencula. “We love putting smiles on faces, on the faces of members of our community and on the faces of our employees.”

The credit union takes part in initiatives like a summer kickoff cookout, once-a-month service at the Jimmie Hale Mission and participation in community events like Moss Rock Festival and community Christmas parades. Avadian employees also partner with Vineyard Family Services at a BackPack Buddy packing party, which provides students who need them with nutritious and easy-to-prepare food options to take home.

Today, with more than 78,000 members from branches throughout the state, Avadian has approximately $750 million in assets and is one of the largest credit unions in Alabama. It prides itself on community involvement.

Linda Cencula, President and CEO
1 Riverchase Pkwy. S., Hoover, AL 35244
Telephone: 205-444-3713  |  Fax: 205-444-3745
Avadiancu.com

8. White-Spunner Construction Inc.

“In our industry we work a lot of crazy hours,” says John White-Spunner. “It certainly isn’t a 9 to 5 business.”

White-Spunner is president and CEO of White-Spunner Construction Inc., a general contracting, design-build and construction management company based in Mobile. His company, in business since 1981, has erected commercial and retail buildings, schools and healthcare facilities throughout the United States.

“Our team works hard, and they deserve to be recognized for that,” he says. “We try to do what we can to make life easier.” One key way is helping employees achieve a work-life balance. “Our office is kid friendly,” White-Spunner says. “So if there’s a school holiday, and we’re still working, our employees are welcome to bring their kids to work with them.”

The company also brings a chaplain to the office weekly to pray and talk privately with employees who request assistance, he says. “He’s not a part of the company,” White-Spunner says. “So he’s never going to be critical of anything that’s shared. He’s just there to support and encourage.”

White-Spunner also has an on-site fitness center, and every quarter, the company hosts fun events, he says, from dinners out to ice-cream sundae parties. The company also hosts an appreciation retreat every fall for employees and their families.

Besides the perks, White-Spunner’s employee benefits package includes a family healthcare plan, dental and vision insurance, disability coverage policies and a matching 401k program.

White-Spunner says companies should listen to employees’ priorities and offer opportunities to merge those priorities with their job.

“That creates a culture where your employees are truly invested,” he says.

John White-Spunner, President and CEO
2010 W. I-65 Service Rd. S., Mobile, AL 36693
Phone: 251-471-5189  |  Fax: 251-478-3962
white-spunner.com

9. Eagle Eye Outfitters Inc.

Established in 1999 by Mark and Susan Anderson, Eagle Eye Outfitters is an independent retail department store in Dothan specializing in outdoor clothing, accessories and supplies, from jeans and leggings to hiking footwear and camping gear.

The company has 45 full-time employees and 31 part-time workers.

“Eagle Eye challenges our staff to be someone great to work with — to be someone that both team members and customers love working with, which means being efficient, communicative, collaborative, personable and willing to work to get things done,” Susan Anderson says.

Unlike many retailers today, the self-described Christian company keeps it doors closed on Sundays. But Eagle Eye Outfitters also gives employees six paid holidays a year once they meet key anniversary dates, Anderson says. In addition, those who complete management training get 80 hours of paid vacation.

Moreover, the company’s employee benefits include store discounts and an up-to-three-percent match toward a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) individual retirement account.

But besides the benefits, Eagle Eye Outfitters hosts an employee Thanksgiving meal and an “After Christmas” party offsite.

The store, however, also offers its employees the chance to give back to the community through its Volunteer Time Off program, which allows full-time workers up to 40 paid hours a year to volunteer at a local nonprofit organization, church or public school. Part-time workers get up to 20 paid hours annually to volunteer.

Anderson says her company chose the benefits and perks by polling their workers and benchmarking with other companies in the retail industry.

She says, “Listen to your staff.”

Mark Anderson, CEO, and Susan Anderson, CFO
3535 Ross Clark Cir., Dothan, AL 36303
Phone: 334-673-2878  |  Fax: 334-673-2879
shopeagleeye.com

10. Roberts Brothers

“Investing in our staff is a consistent focus,” says Daniel Dennis, president of Roberts Brothers Inc., a real estate company based in Mobile.

Roberts Brothers has been in business since 1946, selling homes and rental properties around the Mobile Bay area.

Dennis says its managers endeavor to help employees advance their careers.

“Whether it’s working together on flex hours so someone can pursue a college degree or promoting them to a new department, our managers consistently look for opportunities,” he says.

Last year the company kicked off a new leadership development initiative, Dennis says. It offered employees a six-month stretch to shadow managers and attend managers’ meetings. Each January, the management team reads and discusses a book on leadership and the firm invites motivational speakers and local market experts to make presentations for employees.

Beyond career development, Dennis says the company fosters an “entrepreneurial spirit” among its employees.

“Trying or suggesting new things is encouraged daily,” says Dennis. “When your employees feel safe and secure to try new things and make mistakes, they’re more willing to vocalize better ways to operate.”

Roberts Brothers makes time for fun, too. The company hosts free movie and dinner nights, and, each spring, it treats employees and their families to a company “convention,” which is actually a cruise off the Gulf Coast where the only agenda is relationship-building and relaxation.

Dennis says, “Treat your people as the number one asset on your balance sheet.”

Daniel Dennis, President
3601 Spring Hill Business Park, Ste. 101, Mobile, AL 36608
Phone: 251-344-9220  |  Fax: 251-344-7477
RobertsBrothers.com

11. Crow, Shields, Bailey PC

The accounting and consulting firm Crow, Shields, Bailey PC, headquartered in Mobile, promotes communication and an open door policy, Managing Shareholder Gina McKellar CPA, says.

Crow, Shields, Bailey PC got its start in 1986 when the founder, Kenny Crow, opened the first office in Gulf Shores. Today, the firm has offices in Daphne and Gulf Shores as well.

“Our millennial team members are very involved in recruiting and offer many recommendations regarding retention,” says McKellar. “The key is to listen to these suggestions and have an open mind.” The firm also gathers feedback through internal and external surveys, firm-wide meetings and one-on-one meetings to determine the kinds of perks employees want.

“Perks and benefits are a waste of time and money if they’re not the ones our team is interested in,” she says.

Current perks include Friday trivia with gift card prizes, happy hour socials, food truck lunches and even cornhole tournaments.

Besides the activities, the firm offers benefits such as wellness initiatives, 401k matching, flexible work hours, telecommuting and paid time off to encourage family time, personal hobbies and community involvement, she says. The flexible work scheduling includes letting staffers have Friday afternoons off during non-peak season months.

She says the firm also provides mentoring and professional development through its membership in the RSM U.S. Alliance, an affiliation of independent accounting and consulting firms.

“Have fun,” says McKellar. “Be open to change and new ideas. Listen to your team members.”

Gina McKellar, Managing Shareholder
3742 Professional Pkwy., Mobile, AL 36609
Phone: 251-343-1012  |  Fax: 251-343-1294
csbcpa.com

12. United Bank

In business since 1904, United Bank, with its headquarters in Atmore, has branches throughout southwest Alabama and northwest Florida.

Bob Jones, the bank’s CEO, says that although the financial institution offers its employees benefits such as a 401(k) match and a profit-sharing contribution, it also gives employees opportunities to pursue continuing education, team building and making a difference in local communities.

The bank, for example, provides tuition reimbursement for individuals desiring to attend a banking school, such as the Alabama Banking School at the University of South Alabama, Jones says. United Bank also pays for continuing education for those seeking certification in a specialized area, such as commercial lending, marketing or compliance.

Besides the tuition reimbursements, United Bank offers employees other rewards, too. Most recently, to celebrate the success of its credit card program, United Bank offered team members tickets to a minor league Blue Wahoos baseball game in Pensacola. Other perks have included jeans day on some Fridays throughout the year. And, during football season, employees can wear jerseys representing their favorite teams, Jones says.

“At Christmas we have 12 Days of Kindness in every market where we give them a couple hundred bucks to go out and do something nice for somebody,” he says.

Bank staffers also have volunteered with local charities like the nonprofit food bank Feeding the Gulf Coast, he says.

“I think that’s probably the biggest satisfier,” Jones says. “That there’s more than just the job you do. It’s making a difference.”

Robert Jones, CEO
200 E Nashville Ave., Atmore, AL 36502
Phone: 251-446-6100
unitedbank.com

13. WaveLink Inc.

WaveLink provides aviation and software engineering, as well as technical support, to the U.S. Air Force, Army, Department of Defense and other government agencies. In business since 2001, the Huntsville firm has 51 employees.

WaveLink’s Owner, President and CEO Tamela Gibbs says they meet regularly with employees so employees can discuss their aspirations, expectations and even their frustrations.

“We feel this leads to greater productivity and loyalty,” says Gibbs. “It also helps employees plot a career path because they know where the company is headed and can be told what milestones and achievements are necessary to meet their goals.”

WaveLink demonstrates appreciation for its employees each quarter by hosting occasions for employees to relax with their families — from tickets and concession vouchers to Huntsville Havoc hockey games to the annual Thanksgiving luncheon. Moreover, during those events, the firm awards employees with gifts by lottery draw and service awards for exceptional performance.

WaveLink also offers flex time and alternate work schedules, and the firm provides a 401k profit-sharing option that gives employees a fixed, yearly retirement lump sum based on the profitability of the company, she says.

“The 401k plan cannot be beat,” says Gibbs, “with high profit sharing to the employees regardless of whether employees choose to contribute to their 401k or not, and only a three-year vesting schedule, unlike most companies.”

“We feel that employees expect fairness and programs that tell them, ‘Do good and you’ll get rewarded,’” she says. “It makes a positive impact on the company, with employees working harder to meet and exceed customer expectations.”

Tamela Gibbs, President and CEO
7800 Madison Blvd., Ste. 504, Huntsville, AL 35806
Phone: 256-776-7216  |  Fax: 256-270-9404
wavelinkinc.com

Little Telecom Targets the Digital Divide

Otelco officials met in Birmingham while touring their sites around Alabama and in other states. Richard Clark (left) is president now and will be CEO starting in January. Curtis Garner (right) is CFO. Photo by Cary Norton

Oneonta-based Otelco’s lineage goes back more than a hundred years, to when rural telephone systems were being developed in the United States, and landline telephone service was the company’s foundation when it went public in 2004.

Otelco — its name is derived from Oneonta Telephone Co. — grew through a series of mergers and acquisitions and now provides landline telephone services in rural parts of seven states. Alabama remains its largest market, and the company also operates in Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia.

As the telecommunications industry evolved, Otelco’s services came to include cable, internet-protocol television, digital high-speed internet and cloud-hosted and managed services.

Most of Otelco’s $66 million in revenues last year resulted from its traditional telephone service, even though the company has been losing customers to cellular phones for years. Although traditional phone service still has a nice ring to it at Otelco, the company has dialed up a new direction for the future: providing faster service speeds, especially for internet connectivity.

Says Otelco President Richard Clark, who will become chief executive officer at the start of 2020: “Our biggest opportunity is to broaden fiber deployment to a bigger part of our market over time. We’re going to continue to deploy fiber and other technologies to increase service speeds to customers in our existing markets.”

In Alabama, for example, Otelco is spending $5 million for infrastructure improvements in the next two years. Part of that money is for a project under way and expected to be completed for the city of Arab early next year. That work entails the addition of 113 miles of fiber cable, which will bring faster internet speeds to 4,100 locations.

Otelco also has announced that 83 miles of fiber broadband will be made available to roughly 894 locations in communities near Arab — Ryan, Jones Valley, Summit and Strawberry.  And the company is looking at infrastructure and equipment upgrades to its cable network that would bring the capability of delivering the fastest possible speeds for the majority of Otelco customers in Blount County. Something around 6,000 locations could see such an upgrade beginning in the first half of next year, the company has announced.

In addition to improvements to fiber and cable, Otelco plans to deploy VDSL (very high-speed digital subscriber line) wherever feasible, which will nearly double the speed of traditional DSL. In Alabama, that will facilitate improvements to the company’s services in Blountsville, Nectar, Susan Moore, Snead and Walnut Grove.

“Since we do not offer cellular, data becomes the primary offering moving forward with voice (telephone) being an add-on,” says Curtis Garner, Otelco’s chief financial officer. “The $5 million investment in Alabama is focused all on data. With the increase in devices, apps and other OTT (over the top) options and services, we anticipate that customer demand for speed and usage will continue to increase.”

That’s how federal regulators, who essentially manage subsidies to local exchange carriers like Otelco, see it. Such subsidies were started long ago to help provide telephone service in rural areas at the same cost to consumers that urban customers paid. The methodology of those subsidies changed over time, but the idea has always been that those monies would provide communications services in rural areas at a fair price to the consumer.

Now, the federal emphasis is on decreasing the “digital divide” between urban and rural areas. Thus, the subsidies Otelco now receives are tied to commitments to increase broadband speeds.

“They are giving us an alternative for subsidies for the next 10 years,” Clark says. “But what comes with that is a requirement to increase speeds to 25/3,” which means a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second.

“In many cases, the maximum speed is 6 megabits, so increasing to 25/3 requires a capital investment — a commitment that wasn’t there before. We’re going to spend significant capital to meet those performance requirements — 25/3 to every household in our market. That’s the deal.”

Otelco has about 33,000 customers receiving more than 70,000 services, making it one of the 25 largest local exchange carriers in the United States. Garner estimates there are 800 companies providing telephone service in the United States.

The company was begun in 1998 when Seaport Capital bought Oneonta Telephone Co., which had provided service in Blount County since the early 1900s. Seaport subsequently bought three telephone companies contiguous to Oneonta Telephone, as well as a telephone company in Missouri.

The company went public in 2004 and its name changed to Otelco. More mergers and acquisitions followed, creating its seven-state footprint.

With just more than 200 employees, Otelco is not large. The company has had its ups and downs, including a brief stint in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. In recent years, the company has reduced debt and is streamlining operations and systems for more efficiency.

The company caught the attention several years ago of investor Ira Sochet, who divides his time between Maine and South Florida. Sochet (pronounced socket) has made steady purchases of the company’s stock and now owns close to 40 percent of it. Almost 60 percent of the company’s stock is owned by Sochet and a handful of individuals that includes members of the company’s management and board.

As of late June, Sochet said he would definitely be interested in buying more stock. When he first invested in Otelco several years ago, the stock was selling for $2 to $3 a share. As this issue of Business Alabama went to press, it was selling for around $16 a share.

“There was so much value in the company when I first started buying its stock,” Sochet says. “The stock was cheap then and it still is.”

Sochet sees tremendous long-term value in Otelco’s assets and its goal of increasing internet speeds. “I have told the company that as long as the stock stays cheap, I will just buy it. They would be crazy to let me buy it at market price. I’ll buy the whole thing.”

Sochet sees high-speed internet as communication that changes the world, just as the printing press did hundreds of years ago. “High speed internet rules the world,” he says. “Once the revenues at Otelco are stabilized and start to grow, you can’t put a price tag on this company — once it’s considered a growth company.”

Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Roundup Lawsuits Rock Bayer

Plaintiff attorneys Don McKenna (left) and Rhon Jones are two of the key players as Alabamians join litigation over connections between the weed-killer Roundup and cancer. Photos by Joe De Sciose and Robert Fouts

Jason Bishop, owner of Rock Solid Services Inc., a Shelby County company specializing in tree care and landscape maintenance, has been using the herbicide Roundup for most of his 44 years. The lawn service Bishop started as a teenager has grown, and he now has customers throughout Shelby and Jefferson counties.

When a customer told Bishop about the avalanche of lawsuits filed against Monsanto, the chemical’s manufacturer, and studies linking its main ingredient, glyphosate, to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Bishop was stunned.

“I think I need to look into this a little more,” he says, pointing to a bumpy rash on his right forearm.

Earlier this year, a California jury ruled against Monsanto in a case that alleged Roundup caused a couple’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The jury awarded $55 million in compensatory damages and an additional $2 billion in punitive damages, the third defeat for Monsanto lawyers.

Monsanto, now owned by the German company Bayer, which paid $63 billion for the company last year, has denied allegations that glyphosate or Roundup causes cancer, but Bayer recently announced it will invest $5.6 billion to find alternatives to Roundup. “While glyphosate will continue to play an important role in agriculture and in Bayer’s portfolio, the company is committed to offering more choices for growers,” the company said in a news release.

Recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer published a study of five insecticides and herbicides, including glyphosate. “For the herbicide glyphosate, there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” the agency stated. “The evidence in humans is from studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada and Sweden published since 200l. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.”

If Bishop pursues the issue, his will become one of 12,000 or more lawsuits filed across the nation, with more on the way, according to Rhon Jones, an attorney specializing in environmental issues with Beasley Allen, a Montgomery law firm.

“We are taking these cases daily,” Jones says. “They are coming in so fast that I expect that by the end of the year that we will have about a thousand cases. That is a big number, but that is how active this area is.”

Another Beasley Allen attorney, John Tomlinson, is the lead trial lawyer and is working on a case set for trial next March in Dallas County, and another case in Montgomery County which is not set yet.

Tomlinson says, “We also have two Alabama plaintiffs that are filed in a joint action in St. Louis, and while we are not lead trial counsel on that, we will be participating in trial as support for our plaintiff. That trial will be in February 2020.”

Tomlinson says his firm also has two cases, one filed in St. Louis and another filed in Dallas County, where the plaintiffs have “done farming, produce and cattle farming, where they would apply Roundup to fence rows and also they would spray it on their cotton and other foliage, so those are two of the cases.”

The two Alabama residents involved in Tomlinson’s cases are a yard maintenance worker and an individual who used Roundup extensively on his own property. “There are a lot of people in Alabama that have farms that are not professional farms but they have property and they do a lot of upkeep on that property.”

Don McKenna, a partner at Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton in Birmingham, has been involved in Roundup litigation for about five months.

“Our involvement began after the first verdict and a review of the science,” McKenna says. “A study published this March in the International Journal of Epidemiology found an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from exposure to glyphosate. We knew we had a lot of farmer clients from prior litigation that have significant exposure to Roundup in their farming operations. We felt we needed to make sure that our clients were aware of the link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma so that they would be informed going forward and so that they could seek legal counsel if they have developed the cancer.”

McKenna says his firm has four clients in Arkansas, two in Alabama, one in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania.

Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton has represented a large number of farmers in genetically modified rice litigation and genetically modified corn litigation, McKenna says, and “therefore we have thousands of clients who are exposed to large amounts of Roundup in the farming industry through the use of Roundup-ready crops and application of the Roundup herbicide.”

McKenna says anybody in Alabama who has used Roundup and developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma should seek legal counsel to discuss whether they should bring suit to compensate them for their injuries.

“In addition,” he says, “many farmers in Alabama use Roundup-ready cotton, corn and soybeans, along with the Roundup herbicide. These farm workers have higher levels of exposure than typical homeowner use. They should be aware of the potential danger from Roundup, take precautions to avoid exposure and educate those that work with Roundup.”

The Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton team is preparing to file several suits, McKenna says. “We do a thorough investigation of the client’s medical history and use of Roundup before we file suits.”

Tomlinson says most Roundup damage comes through exposure on the skin. “We also advise people to wear gloves and to try to wear clothing that will keep Roundup from touching the skin, but if you are a farmer and have been out using it extensively, you are going to have some runoff on your skin no matter what you have on.”

Farmers routinely take precautions when using a product marked with skull and crossbones, says Tomlinson, but Roundup “has been marketed as completely safe, there are not cancer warnings on the labels.”

McKenna takes a similar view.

“Businesses should thoroughly test the safety of their products before placing them on the market,” he says. “There is evidence from the first trials that Monsanto’s initial rat studies showed a link between glyphosate and cancer. There is also evidence that rather than conducting further studies, Monsanto hired another scientist to re-evaluate the initial study and find another cancer in the control group so that the results would not be statistically significant.”

McKenna also points out that while Monsanto’s strategy allowed the company to continue to sell the product “without any warnings to the end users, the final result may be serious cancer or death for thousands of people, and hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in litigation costs and injury payments for Monsanto.”

A lot has been made of the huge verdicts being returned, especially on the West Coast, and the impact they have had on Bayer stock prices, which fell drastically but are beginning to recover.

“There have been some very huge verdicts, especially out in California,” says Tomlinson pointing to the “non-economic damages that go along with cancer, the treatment, the pain, the suffering and then you have the punitive damages.”

“Let me just give you some details about the California verdicts,” Jones says. “The first verdict was $289 million, the second verdict was $80 million, the third verdict was over $2 billion. Let me give you a break down. The third verdict was a couple, and the husband and the wife had separate awards but their past economic loss was about $250,000, their future economic loss was about $13 million, their past economic loss was about $16 million, and they awarded a billion each. Clearly the evidence was so damning that the jury was sending a message with the $2 billion punitive, but even if you were to exclude punitive damages, you are still talking about some significant economic losses both past and future, and these are folks who contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“There is a trend here that clearly people are becoming upset about the use of Roundup and cancer and the economic loss that comes from contracting cancer and furthermore, the punishment side of it is just getting larger and larger.”

Jones says his Roundup clients normally contact the firm.

“What would normally happen is that someone will come to us and say ‘I have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or I have some pre-cursor to it, and I have a memory of using Roundup on some kind of regular basis, and would ask us to look into the link.’ That is what we do every single day. Hours of use and the duration is always a little different, so we literally look at one pattern at a time and we have thousands of them, and we review each one and see if we can make that link or not.”

Both Jones and Tomlinson say we are looking at the tip of the Roundup iceberg.

“This has sort of gone from zero to 100 in a short period of time,” says Jones.  “The litigation started and very few people knew about it, nobody read about it, it wasn’t much talked about and then these three verdicts have really put the science on display. So what we see are many more people coming forward on a weekly basis, asking us about this issue, than we have ever seen before, so I believe there will be many more claims made because people who had no reason to ever even consider the link between the use of Roundup and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are now coming in.”

In an effort to expedite the ever-increasing caseload, this past May a multi-district litigation (MDL) court initiated a plan to have well known attorney Kenneth Feinberg become mediator for court-mandated settlement talks between Bayer and people who say Roundup gave them cancer. Feinberg was government-appointed special master for the 9-11 victim compensation fund and the BP Deepwater Horizon compensation fund.

“MDLs bring cases together for common discovery,” says McKenna. “Everyone wants to know about the testing and studies on Roundup and cancer. Everyone wants to know about internal emails and memos regarding the safety of Roundup. Everyone wants to know why no warnings were given on the product labels. An MDL makes it efficient for that information to be provided to all litigants who participate in the MDL. Will it impact your cases? For those cases we may choose to file in the MDL, it will make common discovery available to our clients. MDLs often help facilitate settlements that individuals harmed by Roundup could choose to participate in or continue with their litigation.”

“In my opinion,” says Jones, “this is the hottest, most significant litigation going on in the entire country. It is talked about everywhere, it is in the news, it is important, and Monsanto needs to be held accountable.”

Mobile’s $120 Million GMO Chemical Plant

The June 2018 merger of Bayer and Monsanto brought together the world’s two largest developers of genetically modified crop (GMO) products, including Monsanto’s Roundup brand herbicide.

Bayer Crop Sciences is developer of another weed killer, the Liberty brand herbicide. And a chemical plant in Mobile County was set up in recent years to be one of the world’s largest producers of this weed killer.

GMO crops have been promoted as one of the greatest leaps forward in agricultural productivity. Critics question the yield gains and point out the safety hazards. For Monsanto’s Roundup, the key chemical is glyphosate. For Bayer’s Liberty herbicide, it’s glufosinate.

A groundswell of lawsuits over Roundup rocked Bayer-Monsanto shareholders with major damage awards beginning earlier in 2019.

Glufosinate has escaped the scrutiny applied to glyphosate, but its purpose in GMO farming is similar. It was developed to kill the “superweeds” that evolve a resistance to Roundup’s glyphosate.

Whether glufosinate is as damaging to humans as it is to weeds has not yet become a legal issue. But a lot of the world’s supply of it, or the ingredients that go into it, will be made in Mobile County.

In 2013, Bayer selected the Theodore Industrial Complex, on Mobile Bay, as the site for a $396 million plant that would more than double the company’s global production capacity for glufosinate.

In 2015, plans for the Alabama plant were cut back to a $120 million investment.

Following the Bayer-Monsanto merger, the plant became the property of BASF Corp., when the anti-trust division of the U.S. Justice Department required Bayer to divest itself of its U.S. agricultural holdings prior to the merger. — Chris McFadyen

Bill Gerdes, Robert Fouts and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business       Alabama. Gerdes is based in Hoover, Fouts in Montgomery and De Sciose in Birmingham.

Encompass Bets Big on a Rapidly Aging Population

Encompass Health CEO Mark Tarr. Photos by Cary Norton

On April 1, Birmingham-based Encompass Health Corp. announced its plans to purchase Alacare Home Health & Hospice for $217.5 million. The deal, which closed July 9, will make Encompass one of the top 10 largest hospice providers in the country.

“Alacare is an outstanding organization, and we’re very excited to have them become part of our organization, and we believe their services will be a very good addition to our existing services,” says Mark Tarr, CEO of Encompass Health. With the Alacare acquisition, Encompass Health will add hospice services across the state of Alabama, including overlapping services in three markets — Gadsden, Huntsville and Montgomery.

Encompass already is an important player in the hospice business; its main headquarters is in Birmingham, but its home health and hospice division is headquartered in Dallas. Acquiring Alacare, which operates 23 home health locations and 23 hospice locations across Alabama, generating about $117 million in revenue in 2018, will allow Encompass to become a dominant player in the state’s home health and hospice industry.

The investment doesn’t just significantly expand Encompass Health’s commitment to the home health and hospice segment of its business; it also shows that leaders are confident they can be profitable in an industry that is overshadowed by concerns about changing Medicare payment policies.

Surprising the Industry

In a first-quarter earnings call, Tarr told investors that Encompass would plan to spend $50 million to $100 million to grow and acquire new home health and hospice locations during 2019. So the $217 million price tag for Alacare, announced via SEC filings in April, was roughly double the amount investors were expecting.

For Encompass leaders, the opportunity was too good to pass up. “We’ve been talking to Alacare for years about the potential opportunity,” April Anthony, CEO of Encompass Health’s home health and hospice business, told Home Health Care News. In late 2018, when Alacare officials got serious about selling the business, those discussions became more intense.

Because Encompass leaders weren’t sure when or if the Alacare opportunity would actually pan out, “We’re always pretty conservative in that acquisition profile,” Anthony says.

Why Encompass Is Bullish on HH&H

Home health and hospice has been an important part of the Encompass business, but the company’s Alacare acquisition shows that it’s committed to growing that segment.

“We’re well positioned to take advantage of the demographic tailwinds of our aging population,” Tarr says. “It’s just a fact that as we age, we’re more likely to need rehab services, whether inpatient or outpatient. And as we grow, Encompass will have both the facility-based setting and the home-based setting of care to meet those needs.”

The average age of an Encompass Health patient is between 76 and 77 years old, Tarr says. As Baby Boomers age, the U.S. population is undergoing a transformation: By 2035, there will be more people 65 years and older (78 million) than people under the age of 18 (76.7 million), for the first time in U.S. history, according to Census Bureau figures.

“We like the hospice area because there are a number of areas of overlap with our other businesses, such as having a mobile staff,” Tarr says. “The same demographic driving the increased need for rehab is also driving hospice, and societal acceptance of hospice has grown. More and more people want to live the final stage of their lives at home rather than in an institution.”

While the need for home-based health services continues to increase, continuing changes in regulations and payment models mean the category is not without risk. For instance, in late 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services published new rules that will change the way home health agencies are paid for services. Home health agencies have traditionally received a bundled payment for all services provided in a 60-day episode of care, but the new standard, known as the patient-driven groupings model (PDGM), reduces that episode of care to just 30 days. Also, the number of therapy visits has traditionally been a determining factor for the payment amount, but new rules stop using the number of therapy visits to determine reimbursement.

These and other changes, set to take effect in January 2020, mean that most home health agencies will have to change their documentation and coding practices to remain competitive. While the new rules are expected to revolutionize the way home health agencies operate and how they are reimbursed, Encompass Health remains undeterred from expanding this category of its business.

“If you look at the purpose and objective of most Medicare reforms, almost all of them are intended to reduce costs from a provider standpoint,” Tarr says. “We’re already positioned to be a high-quality, low-cost provider, and we have a strong track record of being adaptable, flexible and mitigating regulatory changes. Medicare is a big part of the environment in which we provide services, and being a high-quality, low-cost provider puts us in a much better position to operate effectively under its rules.”

The firm moved into a new headquarters on Liberty Parkway in Birmingham in 2018. From there it provides rehab or home health services to most of the nation.

Building on a Strong Foundation

Encompass Health’s decision to expand its home health and hospice division is just the latest news in an already solid and growing company. During fiscal year 2018, the company’s annual report showed revenues of $4.27 billion and earnings of $555.2 million.

With more than 40,000 employees, Encompass Health consistently has been ranked as a good place to work. It was included among the 2019 Fortune 100 Best Places to Work, and Great Place to Work Institute and People magazine named Encompass as one of 50 Companies that Care in 2018.

“Encompass is a good place to work because of our people,” Tarr says. “We take great pride in our culture.”

When the company underwent a rebranding and name change initiative in early 2018, employees were asked to identify the company values they viewed as most important and representative of the organization. They said things like “focus on the positive,” “stronger together” and “lead with empathy.”

Many employee suggestions became part of the company’s cultural standards, and “it speaks volumes that our employees view our organization this way,” Tarr says. “Our values show why it’s a great place to work, and in healthcare, where there are so many staffing shortages, having and keeping a great staff is essential to maintaining a profitable business.”

Nancy Mann Jackson and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Jackson is based in Madison and Norton in Birmingham.

The Critical Business Issues of Privacy

Paige Boshell (left) and Josh Torres are two of Alabama’s new specialists in privacy law. Photo by Art Meripol

When Paige Boshell and Josh Torres got out of law school, few attorneys were interested in the area of privacy law.

“My first job out of law school was with the Social Security Administration, and that’s where I became aware of privacy law and started thinking about it,” says Torres, corporate privacy and regulatory counsel for iCIMS, a talent acquisition software company.

Boshell, too, began working early on in privacy, has focused on it for more than 20 years and now runs a Birmingham-based firm called Privacy Counsel.

Boshell and Torres are among a handful of attorneys who hold the privacy law specialty, which the Alabama Bar Association began certifying in 2018.

“We are at an incredibly important crossroads with privacy right now on a worldwide scale,” Boshell says. “Look at China’s use of facial recognition tech and San Francisco’s banning of it. Look at ‘smart cities,’ where privacy decisions have implications for civil rights and the democratic process. It’s exciting.”

Torres agrees, saying that data and other privacy breaches have piqued the interest of people who might not have even been aware of the potential problems before.

“When I got out of law school, there were not a lot of people paying attention to this area,” he says. And that has changed in the 10 years he’s been practicing. “This area of the law is growing astronomically because the demand far exceeds the supply.”

What that means is there is more demand for attorneys like Boshell and Torres, both based in Birmingham, to help companies navigate the often-treacherous waters of privacy law.

“It is critical for businesses to be mindful of the consumer data that they collect and share and that they deploy privacy practices — in addition to security measures — to protect it,” Boshell says.

Many businesses don’t even realize they need to beware of data and how it’s collected, according to Boshell.

“In Alabama, business privacy maturity is about where cyber security maturity was five or so years ago,” she says. “Many businesses are not subject to either the comprehensive European or California privacy laws, so owners and executives are wondering if and why privacy matters to them and how to decide what sort of financial and resources commitment to make to an issue that doesn’t readily show a return on investment. If you are in business, you are in the tech business and the data business, which means you are already in the privacy business, whether you know it or not. This is especially true if you collect, use, process, maintain or share consumer information.”

The first thing a business should do is inventory its data and methods of collection, Boshell says.

“You need to know what data you have, why you have it, how you are getting it, and who has access to it,” she says. “If you don’t need the data, delete it. If you have it on multiple systems, consider consolidating the data or coordinating the systems. If someone has access to it that doesn’t need it, eliminate the access.”

Torres says that’s sometimes more difficult than it seems like it should be and that, while CEOs of companies can easily tell you about the financial dealings of their companies, data is another matter.

“If you were to ask the CEO of many companies what data do you have and how do you process it, I don’t think they would know how to get to that data,” he says, citing Apple CEO Tim Cook as one of the exceptions. “He does have a view and eye toward privacy along those lines.”

In addition to the data inventory outlined by Boshell, Torres says it’s imperative that companies be transparent with consumers about the information they’re collecting.

“We should be clearly telling individuals what we’re going to collect, how we’re going to use it and how we’re going to share it,” he says.

And though the public may be worn out when it comes to hearing about data breaches, that’s another area that businesses need to be concerned with.

“How can we prevent a data breach, and, in the event of one, how do we eradicate and contain the data breach, and then how do we notify people about it?” Torres says.

Boshell believes in the importance of privacy law so much that she left a Birmingham law firm — where she had co-chaired its privacy and cyber security practice — after 27 years in April 2018 and started Privacy Counsel.

“Working on my own allows me to focus directly on cyber and privacy, rather than having it be incidental to other legal practices and client business needs,” she says. “Most of my clients are financial institutions and tech vendors, and most are out of state. I love being a lawyer, and I especially love privacy law. Privacy is a universal value that impacts a variety of legal disciplines. It’s a relatively new practice, so there aren’t many of us who have been doing this for 20-plus years.”

To receive the Privacy Law Specialist certification, which is authorized by the American Bar Association and certified by the International Association of Privacy Professionals, Torres and Boshell had to be members in good standing of at least one Alabama law practice, to hold several other certifications and to pass an ethics exam.

Torres says that most who hold the privacy certification are, like him, working for businesses, either in-house or at a law firm. “In the next decade, though, I think you’ll see attorneys on the plaintiff’s bar getting the certification.” In other words, attorneys will specialize in privacy, similar to what they do now with car wrecks, disability cases and other specialties.

Also in the next few years, Torres anticipates more law schools introducing privacy law into their curriculums. “Very few even have a class on this topic right now,” he says.

And the specialty also will probably result in more attorneys leaving their practices.

“They’ll join leadership positions in technology from what they’ll gain in knowing about privacy and data security,” Torres says. “The business title that’s most applicative is chief privacy officer.”

Consumers shouldn’t forget their role in privacy matters, either.

“It’s imperative that consumers educate themselves,” Torres says. “You wouldn’t give your money over to a bank if you didn’t know what they were going to do with it. So why do we do that with our data? You can never get it back once you give it. Consumers have got to get more educated.”

Alec Harvey and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey
is based in Auburn and Meripol in
Birmingham.

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