Working the Globe

With employees that speak 33 languages—from Spanish to Urdu—Celergo fosters a diverse work environment that makes people its core asset.

In order to helm a company with offices in four countries, Celegro cofounders Bert Brown and Michele Honomichl knew they had to focus on cultivating a strong work culture and let the business necessities follow suit.

Several years after founding global payroll-services provider Celergo in 2004, Michele Honomichl and Bert Brown made an unusual decision: they would hire an organizational-development manager instead of a financial manager. The strategy must have seemed odd, given that Celegro operates in a numbers-focused industry.

Honomichl and Brown had a good reason for picking people over numbers. “We’re a service company and people are our core asset,” Brown says. “We figured we could always manage the financials. It’s much harder to fix the people.” To that end, one of the first things the new manager of organizational development did was note the importance of nurturing the firm’s culture. “Culture isn’t anything you create; it’s something that exists,” says Brown. “But, you want to be sure you maintain it as you grow.”

Culture is key, as the Deerfield, Illinois-based company also has offices in London, Budapest, and Singapore. Celergo processes payrolls in 111 countries. It’s a complicated business, because it requires knowledge of payroll-deduction calculations in each country, as well as knowledge of local customs, such as when holidays are celebrated and which days are workdays.

The culture the cofounders created begins with Celergo’s six core values: passion; integrity, dignity, and respect; teamwork and collaboration; global diversity; entrepreneurialism; and work-life balance. “They’re basically who we are,” says Honomichl.

In fact, to work at Celegro, a prospective employee must clearly exhibit the firm’s core values. “We ask a lot of questions intended to determine who will fit in and who won’t,” Honomichl says.

When looking for evidence of passion, for example, Honomichl and Brown ask employees what they like to do. “Enthusiasm for something, whether it’s work or a hobby, translates into a good team member,” Honomichl says. “And it’s a bonus if they say they’re passionate about numbers.”

In regard to global diversity, Celergo seeks employees who have a passion for the international, looking at whether they might have studied abroad, if they might enjoy traveling, or if they might speak a second language. In sum, Celergo employees speak 33 unique languages, from Spanish to Urdu, and in the Deerfield office quite a few employees are first- or second-generation Americans. “For those employees, being in the United States itself is international; they live our values,” Honomichl says.

Of all the values, work-life balance may be one of the most important, because the industry is so demanding. “You could do payroll 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that’s not what we want,” Honomichl says. “Our intent is to get our jobs done and enjoy life.”

Living by those six core values clearly translates into employee satisfaction. “Time and time again you see that when push comes to shove, people are willing to help each other out,” Brown says. “It’s not unusual for an employee to stay late to help a coworker get a project out the door. That’s two values in action: teamwork and collaboration, and respect.”

Employee satisfaction, in turn, has driven the 114-employee company’s growth, landing it on Inc. magazine’s Inc. 500, a list of the fasting-growing companies in America, as well as the National Association for Business Resources’ list of Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For three years running.

Today, the company’s focus on culture is coming full circle, as employees who want to live by Celergo’s values are seeking the company out. “In almost every interview I’ve conducted recently, the prospective employee has named that award as one of the reasons he or she wants to work here,” Honomichl says. “They say it’s testament to us living by our values.”