Sidepath: Customers come first, then employees

Originally featured on - December 9, 2016

When SBC Communications merged with AT&T in 2005, Jim Andronaco’s career hit a fork in the road. The SBC executive went from working for a large telecom entity to a corporate behemoth.

As a vice president in the sales division, he was accustomed to being near clients, making personal connections. But under the re-branded AT&T, customers and employees were numbers, he said. He was given three options: move to New Jersey (where all top AT&T leaders worked), take a demotion to stick close to home, or accept a buyout.

A “play it safe” kind of guy, the 41-year-old Andronaco did the unthinkable: He left.

“This was the nudge I needed,” he said.

In 2006, he and fellow SBC employee Patrick Mulvee launched their own information technology company, Sidepath. It would be the antithesis to corporate America – where the heart of the operation is valued.

“Customers come first, employees second and profits third,” Andronaco said. “I want a culture where, when people get up, they want to go work.”

Ten years later, his risk has paid off.

The Laguna Hills company provides data center hosting for 300 clients including Mazda and Extron Electronics. In the Register’s 2016 Top Workplaces survey, it scored the highest marks for a small business. Winners are selected based on employee feedback on compensation, benefits, job satisfaction and social responsibility.

At Sidepath, benefits for workers include 100 percent coverage of employee health care premiums, flexible hours, telecommuting, profit sharing and the freedom to make decisions without wrestling with red tape.

Perks go beyond the paycheck.

Every Wednesday the company splurges with a spread of Mexican food served in a breakroom stocked daily with drinks and bags of Doritos and Cheetos.

“We always have a lot of food and drink,” Andronaco said. “If people are doing lunch on their own, there’s a disconnect.”

The family-style meal is done regularly to keep “everyone close-knit,” Andronaco said.

A weekly platter of carnitas isn’t the only great equalizer for the staff.

If you’re looking to impress a client or take a break, head over to the pool table at one of the main meeting rooms.

Over the years, Andronaco – a savvy salesman at his core – has learned one thing about the tech culture.

“Nearly every I.T. guy likes pool,” he said.

Andronaco likens Sidepath’s work ethic to team rowing – everyone works together to keep moving forward.

But highly motivated people get to their destination faster. “If you treat people well, they will row harder,” he said.

Make no mistake, motivating people isn’t just about quarterly bonuses and fat commissions.

While Sidepath offers competitive salaries, Andronaco said, “Pay isn’t the sole (reason) people get up and go to work” in the morning.

Employees are empowered to set their own goals and enrich themselves through training. They are reminded often that hard work is valued.

“Everyone’s voice matters,” Andronaco said. “That’s been the secret sauce.”

The workplace recipe has led to a very low turnover rate at Sidepath, which has had just three people leave in 10 years.

“That’s unheard of in our business,” Andronaco said.

Sidepath is a flat organization, where titles are rare to nonexistent.

Andronaco, co-founder and president, says he surrounds himself with “leaders,” not “managers.”

As Sidepath approached its 10-year anniversary last year, Andronaco and Mulvee knew they wanted to reward employees for the “blood, sweat and tears” they put into the company. They balked at cash bonuses because they wanted to do something extraordinary.

The leaders broke the news to staff during a holiday party. With the Newport Beach boat parade as a backdrop, employees were told they’d be treated to an all-expenses paid trip to the Cook Islands.

The South Pacific prize was so unreal, one employee joked she would stave off her retirement to ensure she could go.

The remote island proved challenging, at first, for the group of I.T. professionals. Cellphone and internet service were nearly nonexistent.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a great way to relax for a week,” one employee wrote in the survey.

That’s exactly what Andronaco was going for: an unforgettable memory.

“We are all blessed.”