When Pat Perry, then-president of human resources organization Employers Resource Council (ERC), met Kelly Keefe, he knew he couldn’t pass up her talent. Keefe had recently left a successful career with Deloitte after having her first child and realized she wanted to get back to work. But with a 6-month-old baby, she wasn’t ready to go back full time. So, Perry agreed to hire her to work 10 hours a week. “Many people probably wouldn’t have done that. They would have said, ‘Full time or no time,’” says Keefe. But the arrangement worked out for everyone — ERC got Keefe’s talents and Keefe got to work, be with her family and take on more responsibilities when she was able. Now, 14 years later, she is running the company, having been named ERC president when Perry stepped down after 20 years in the role. He now serves as board chairman.
Although this is not the norm at many companies, it is not unusual for the Highland Heights-based office. As concepts such as flexible hours and remote work gain traction at workplaces nationally, they are nothing new at ERC, thanks to the “workplace experiment” Perry put in place shortly after joining the company as president in 1998. Perry, as well as others in his field, counts his implementation of a unique workplace culture among his top achievements, more so even than the growth he oversaw in his years as president.
“Our focus has always been two-fold: Acquiring and keeping the very best talent we could find, but even more importantly, our focus has always been to put our employees and their families first, ahead of profits. We really wanted to provide every employee in the organization an opportunity to have a great life outside work and not have to have a traditional struggle of a balancing act of work and family life,” says Perry. “We wanted people to be home for dinner.” ERC employees are not tied to a traditional schedule. They can set their own hours and work from home. There is unlimited paid time off and no restrictions on bereavement leave. Employees’ children are welcome in the office, as are their dogs. “We always set the tone with our staff that if they ever prioritize work over family, they probably didn’t belong at ERC,” says Perry.
The idea was that if you build a great workplace, top talent will follow. Twenty years later, ERC considers the experiment a success. “By every traditional metric, we have exceeded expectations,” Perry says. “From a pure measuring of the dollars and cents and the bottom line, we definitely have knocked it out of the park. But what we’re most proud of is that over 21 years, that environment really did attract exceptional people.”
Perry adopted these practices after working in more traditional workplaces. He grew up in Willowick as the youngest of three sons to parents whom he counts among his top role models. He earned a business administration degree from the University of Dayton, his MBA from Bowling Green State University and a SPHR certification from the Society for Human Resource Management. He worked at KPMG, University MedNet and AIM Executive before joining ERC as president in 1998, where he was tasked with restructuring the company that’s been in business since 1920.
Under Perry’s leadership, the company grew significantly, expanding its services and reaching a national clientele. ERC provides a host of professional services, including training, HR consulting and engagement surveys. Some of its key offerings are NorthCoast 99, an annual recognition program that honors workplaces that attract top talent, and ERC Health, a health insurance program for small- and mid-size businesses.
Pattie Wagoner, who previously served on ERC’s board and is CEO of CareerCurve, credits Perry’s innovation and willingness to take risks for ERC’s ability to implement those two programs. “ERC Health stands out as something that catapulted the organization,” she says. “That just took that organization from being a local nonprofit to having a for-profit arm that has a national presence.” Having worked in the human resources field for decades, Wagoner has seen Perry’s workplace policies set trends. “At ERC, he had the ability to redefine the workplace. I think when he originally did it, people thought he was crazy. But he said, ‘These are adults.’…This is where Pat was way ahead of others. If you want the best talent, you have to be willing to create an environment where they cannot just survive, but thrive.” But what impresses Wagoner about Perry is his integrity. “In business, he is one of the most stand-up, outstanding human beings I’ve ever met.”
For his part, Perry does not count NorthCoast99, ERC Health or even ERC’s trend-setting workplace environment as his top achievement. What he is most proud of is that he has lived the values he established at ERC by always putting his wife, Patricia, and their two children first. “What I’m really most proud of is I never, in 40 years, missed anything with my family. Ever.”
Perry decided last year it was time to step down as president, a decision he sees as crucial in business leadership. In this decision and thousands of others he’s made in his career, two pillars have guided him: Lead with your heart and always do the right thing. “When I go to bed at night, the last thing I think is, ‘Did I give 100 percent today, at work and at home? Did I make an impact today? Did I make a little dent in the universe?’” he says. “It might have been incredibly small, but did I do something that made a positive difference in someone’s life today?”