Repeating History by Design

As Symcor steps into an aggressive growth phase, its HR team, led by CHRO Dee Dee Milner, is leaning on the company's cutting-edge past to move forward

Leaders at Symcor aren’t afraid of change. The company began in 1996 when executives at three large banks took action to address trends in the industry. Cheque volumes had decreased, but each bank still spent countless hours on the manual task of processing the documents. They created Symcor to serve as a financial processing outsourcer. The company initially grew through acquisition to become one of the largest of its kind in Canada.

Today, Symcor employs more than 3,000 personnel and maintains the largest data archive in the country. In 2011, Chameli Naraine stepped in as CEO and ushered in a new era. She has led an ambitious turnaround, establishing new goals to increase performance, streamline operations, and drive financial results. Dee Dee Milner, senior vice president of human resources and chief human resource officer, is helping build and maintain the culture to support her CEO’s vision.

What’s led the changes you’ve made as a company over the last few years?
Leadership and collaboration. Our new CEO set clear, measurable goals along with a solid vision. We saw after the downturn in the United States that making great strides there would be difficult, so we took a step back and looked to position ourselves for growth opportunities in Canada.

And what did you find?
We focused on becoming a best-in-class outsourcer with greater efficiency by really understanding our clients and delivering services they need in a cost-efficient, client-focused manner. As demand increased for data safety and security and digital imaging, the product opportunities we can offer changed as well. We’ve expanded from a performance innovative company to a performance innovation and growth company by leveraging these opportunities in our core capabilities. We now provide outsourcing services to banks, telcos, utilities, wealth, insurance, payroll, and retail credit organizations.

Like many companies, Symcor values volunteerism and social responsibility, but at Symcor, grassroots and official programs are fully led by company employees. Together, they raise money, organize events, and serve at numerous local charities and organizations throughout their communities across Canada.

What’s most important to you, as the CHRO, when it comes to leading during this transition?
More than anything else, it’s about getting people into the right mind-set and helping them realize that we’ve always been about innovation. That’s not changing. It’s not about being on a specific team that’s looking at a new growth initiative but continuing to innovate in what we do every single day to support the business and drive excellence in performance for clients. This allows us to leverage these new opportunities for them.

So your historic culture is still important to the company?
Very much so. We talk a lot about the fact that we’ve been fortunate over five years of excellent performance to earn the right to grow the business. We can’t just ignore that and move on to growth. Innovation is the foundation that got us where we are today.

And how do you build on that?
Collaboration. It’s not one person or one product, it’s all of us working together.

How do you present this to the rest of the workforce?
A lot of credit goes to our CEO because she’s driven this culture of performance excellence and collaboration. We’ve made our communication more transparent and constant.

How have you done that?
We want a two-way conversation. All employees have at least three town halls per year in which they hear from our CEO and other leaders on our performance and our mission. They know where we stand and where we’re going. Our CEO visits every site, and she doesn’t just stand at the podium. She walks the floors and meets people and asks probing questions to really understand our business and understand the why behind what we do. I think that brings awareness to our employees that everything they do impacts the company’s performance in one way or another.

“We want a two-way conversation. All employees have at least three town halls per year in which they hear from our CEO and other leaders on our performance and our mission. They know where we stand and where we’re going.”

Symcor is known for community involvement. Why is that important to you?
It’s a passion of our employees. It’s right for our culture and for our community. It goes back to the idea of collaboration, because for us, it’s not top down or bottom up. We have some corporate-driven ideas, and we have some grassroots efforts, but our employees organize everything themselves for causes they believe in.

What are some of your favorite causes and events?
We started a partnership with the Toronto Zoo and Polar Bears International, and every year we take teams to help plant trees there. We’ve planted more than 2,500 since 2010.

What does that do for your employees?
It’s an area of pride for them. Even those who don’t participate on the day can go to the zoo with their families and see the Symcor signs and point out the trees.

What else has been effective?
We’ve changed a couple things recently. When we have guest speakers, we make donations in their name instead of giving them Symcor swag. At hiring events, candidates can take a perforated postcard and read our messaging around values and mission. They fill out part of the card and drop it in a box. At the end of the event, we make a charitable donation on behalf of everyone that stopped by our booth.

How do these programs connect to the Symcor culture?
They raise awareness and let people know who we are and what’s important to us. They allow us to engage our workforce. Our employees and their families walk away being proud to be a part of Symcor and what their company is doing to help support the community.

What’s most important to your continued success?
We want every employee to understand that innovation is becoming even more of a priority in what we do—not just in new products or services, but in what we do every day. We want them to come to work looking for ways to do their jobs better and smarter than before, and we want to give them the tools they need and every opportunity we can give them to succeed.