Chris Heim believes in sharing with the employees of HelpSystems — all the way into an equity stake in the company.
“We share everything. We share financials, we share wins, we share losses,” said Heim, chief executive of the Eden Prairie IT software company and named the leadership winner in the midsize company category.
Heim is no stranger to running successful software companies. A University of St. Thomas graduate, he joined what became HighJump Software in 1985 as an intern and rose to CEO by 1997. 3M acquired the company for $90 million in 2003.
In 2006, he purchased Amcon Software with longtime business associate Dan Mayleben. Amcon grew to almost 300 employees and was doing about $50 million in annual revenue when USA Mobility bought it for $163 million in 2011.
Heim then became CEO of Oregon-based Axium Software in January 2013.
HelpSystems’ longtime CEO Janet Dryer, who was looking to begin a new chapter after working at the company for 30 years, approached Heim in 2014 about taking over her role. He had joined the company’s board in 2012.
Among the first things Heim and Chief Financial Officer Mayleben did when they joined HelpSystems was conduct an employee survey. They found similar results as Workplace Dynamics. The company had been on the Top Workplaces list in 2012 and 2013. Last year, it ranked 21st and this year 16th.
Under Dryer, HelpSystems had grown from $20 million to $110 million in annual revenue.
“Janet Dryer has a lot to do with the cultural foundation of HelpSystems,” Heim said. “We tried to keep the things that are unique and special and then layer on our operating system.”
Part of that operating philosophy is frequent communication with employees and an open book management style, even sharing the company’s finances.
“It’s my theory that bad news in a company travels on its own,” Heim said. “And in an absence of information, people tend to make it up, so why not share it all.”
An all-encompassing weekly e-mail keeps employees updated on the goals of the company, and there is an all-hands meeting monthly.
“I don’t think you can over-communicate with employees,” Heim said.
Another benefit that Heim and Mayleben institute at each of their companies is a stock option plan. Heim didn’t disclose how much equity they’ve given but describes it as a “good-sized chunk.” Each year, they have an external valuation done of the company so employees can track the value of their options.
In the software and high-tech industry, employees can be recruited away pretty easily by offering more salary, which is why Heim and Mayleben are big believers in sharing equity in the companies they’ve run.
“If you are going to compete just on dollars, you are not going to do it,” Heim said. “That’s one of the reasons why we like to make them owners, give them a piece of the action.”