Will Work For Love: AnnMarie Cross, @WatchfireSigns, Illinois

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

This month we welcome AnnMarie Cross, Human Resources Manager for Watchfire Signs in Danville, Illinois. Her focus is recruiting, but she also often handles employee relations and policy issues. And, yes, she admits to being verbose.

  1. Describe your personal workspace.

    As a human resources manager, it’s important I’m accessible to our employees and candidates alike, so my workspace is in a highly visible area near the reception space. It’s a spacious open-air cube, with the wall covered with a mix of photos of our rescue horses and my granddaughter, interspersed with a variety of charts and company documents. I’d love to say that my space is neat and organized, but, unfortunately, that would be a lie.

  2. How do you get to work?

    My passion outside of work is being president and co-founder of a nonprofit horse rescue, so I live in a very rural area. I’m reminded of the saying, ‘This may not be the middle of nowhere, but it’s close’. My daughter’s graduating class was just 32 students, and that school represents the combination of three farming communities. Luckily, traffic isn’t an issue in our area, so my 28-mile drive takes me about 35 minutes daily, and is genuinely beautiful. Being so rural, the only time we see a traffic jam is for tractors, trains or snow plows.

  3. What is an average day like?

    I’m not sure there is such a thing. The real joy of working in HR is that every day, even every hour, is so very different from the next. Working at a growing hi-tech company, a key focus of most of my days is recruiting. We have a real, intense day-by-day challenge of finding people with the right tech skills and the right work ethic for every role, from entry level factory work all the way through senior management positions. I also often handle employee relations and policy issues, from finding a way to be flexible with unusual bereavement situations to handling discipline issues – sometimes in rapid succession.

    Yesterday, I spent a good portion of the day working on our presentation at a regional open house to showcase our technology and the great jobs we have available here at Watchfire Signs. I also spent a lot of time speaking with the multiple ‘head hunters’ who are working to help us fill some critical open positions.

  4. What is essential to you being able to work happily?

    A steady supply of chocolate! Honestly, I have to be passionate about what I do. When I was in college, I worked some temporary jobs, and found I needed to challenge myself. I once worked in a temp job assembling CDs. It used to be done by hand – take the disk, snap it in the tray, slide in the lyrics booklet, snap it shut, and run it through a shrink wrap machine. In my two weeks on the job, I broke every record they had for number of units assembled in a day, and found several ways to improve the process so others could do the work faster, too. I do have a pretty good knack of finding a way to get passionate about whatever it is I’m doing.

    This is why I love recruiting. It lets my passion for Watchfire and for technology show through to candidates, and helps them get excited about the opportunities here.

  5. How flexible are your working conditions?

    At Watchfire, our schedules and flexibility vary by the position involved. When I managed the customer service team, I felt it was critical to be here every day during the same core hours as my technicians. In HR, I feel it is important that I am here during our production staff’s hours so that I can assist with questions and concerns that might arise during those main hours. However, I have the flexibility to arrive earlier or later if needed for personal reasons. I just make sure another member of our HR team will be in the office if I am not.

  6. What do you think your employer looks for in its staff?

    This question is right up my alley! Passion and a geek factor. Did I mention passion? We want people who love what they do, genuinely enjoy it, are willing to make creative suggestions and look for better ways to do their work, want to please our customers, and have an interest in improving our products.

    By geek factor, I mean that we’re looking for team members who enjoy and embrace technology. An engineer with a degree in civil engineering (instead of electronic engineering) can be fantastic as a help desk engineer. The drive for knowledge and approach to problem solving translates well.

    This interest in technology is demonstrated by production workers who take the right classes in high school or who explore hobbies, such as building their own computers, setting up home networks, or operate Ham radios.

    We love to see staff members expand and grow their education, their skills and knowledge and then their careers within the Watchfire team. We don’t have rigid ‘career paths’; rather, our team members have the opportunity to show us where their interests lie, to grow their skills in that area, and then to develop into those roles.

    In a recent report I created for Steve Harriott, Watchfire CEO, more than 20% of our staff had at least two major promotions or have made a big departmental move.

  7. What suggestions do you have for your company?

    We’re in the midst of a 100,000+ sq. ft. expansion of our main facility, so I guess my suggestions would mainly relate to the new space. I’d love to see us add showers and lockers, so that employees can work out before work or at lunch, and still get comfortable before returning to work. I wish we were large enough to have a cafeteria with a cook, since I’m a lousy eater and even worse about packing myself something both healthy and edible. On that note, an ice cream machine would be nice!

    Also, we sponsor fun events a few times a year. We have ‘movie night’ in our parking lot, where we play a family-friendly movie on our full sized (14’ x 48’) billboard. I would love for us to do that more frequently, and occasionally to open it to the public as a way to help people become more aware of what we build and the complexity of our cool technology.

  8. Do you have any frustrations you would like to share with us?

    Like all companies, we have growing pains, but I think this is a fantastic problem to have. My main frustration is in how our town views itself. Our little city, Danville, Ill., had a GM plant that left town around 25 years ago. Many in the community are still crying about losing GM and ‘poor Danville’. We are a great little city, with dozens of mid-sized manufacturers and a broad range of businesses, but we can’t seem to shake this ‘poor Danville’ mindset.

    I wish everyone could see Danville as I do: we have dozens of companies in the area spending large amounts of money to find and recruit good local talent with the right skills. We’ve had people from as far away as Texas, Florida and Colorado come to Danville to work and they love it here.

  9. What do you like best about your job?

    I love finding and hiring great people, and watching their careers blossom and grow. It’s incredibly rewarding. When someone I hired a few years ago comes to see me, and their eyes are shining with excitement to tell me they’ve just been promoted, or they are going back to school because they want to apply for this new job, that’s just so incredibly rewarding.Also, it’s fun to get to pick out what this month’s birthday treat is going to be!

  10. How open is your company to new ideas and suggestions?

    Incredibly. There’s a really cool mindset here: “Doing nothing *IS* a decision, and it’s almost always the wrong one.” Watchfire’s management encourages our staff to try creative approaches. That means that we encourage failure because there are lessons to be learned even in failure.

  11. How much responsibility have you been given?

    My responsibility at Watchfire has grown dramatically as we’ve grown. I arrived in 2005, just after we added our own on-site circuit board assembly facility, building even that portion of our product right here in Danville. We nearly tripled in size from 2005 to 2008 despite the recession. Many of us who joined the company during those massive growth waves have been given great opportunities to grow and take on new responsibilities.

  12. How green are you and your company?

    Not only are we a green company, but our products are energy efficient. Watchfire’s LED digital signs were the first to have earned UL Energy Certification. In addition, we are continually innovating our designs so our billboards and signs use significantly less energy year over year. And we recycle both in our office and manufacturing facility. I’m personally pretty passionate about being green in a broad range of areas in my life, from driving a vehicle that gets good mileage to recycling materials here and at home.

    To stretch the concept a bit, outside of work, my family runs a nonprofit horse rescue on our farm (cwer.org), where we essentially ‘recycle’ horses. Our facility is pretty similar to your local humane society, except for horses instead of dogs/cats/household pets. Most of these horses are considered throw aways that would otherwise be killed. Our mission is to rescue these horses from bad situations, rehabilitate and retrain them, and find them new homes.

    We also accept donations of all sorts of farm-related equipment, tools, horse tack and such, reworking anything we can, then either using it ourselves or selling it to help us support the rescue.

  13. What inspires you?

    My 19-year-old daughter inspires me. Tory is a student at University of Illinois, and has an intense passion to assist cancer patients and to find a cure for the disease. This summer, Tory and 27 fellow students bicycled from New York City to San Francisco, raising nearly $150,000 for cancer research. Along the way, they were meeting with and talking to people affected by cancer. While most college kids were at the beach or working jobs in air conditioning, she spent 75 days, pedaling an average of 75 miles per day, to help others.

  14. What are your ambitions?

    Work-wise, I want to earn my master’s degree in HR, and would love to continue to take on additional responsibility assisting Watchfire in its growth. Personally, I’m happy to say that I have fulfilled several of my life ambitions already, so I’ve expanded on them:
    • I founded the nonprofit horse rescue 10 years ago, and going forward, I want to take it to a point where it can continue without my assistance;
    • I’ve seen both my daughters graduate high school and grow up to be incredible adults;
    • I was the first woman to ever hold a national ranking as an aerobatic model aircraft pilot and also the author of several aftermarket books on remote control radio equipment programming;
    • My current non-work obsession is a competitive motorcycle sport called observed trials. It is really big in Europe but not common here in the U.S.. (We ride over interesting obstacles on lightweight slow speed dirt bikes) So, my ambition in this arena is to someday move out of the ‘rookie’ class.

  15. If you could change only one thing, what would it be?

    I would wave a magic wand and change the general American perception that manufacturing is a dead-end area of employment.To do this, I would like to find some way to change our high school students’ perceptions of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) so they understand the importance of these subjects to most jobs in our economy today, whether those jobs are in manufacturing or not.

  16. How much time do you devote to social networking?

    Watchfire has a wonderfully capable Internet marketing specialist, Carol Wade, who handles Watchfire’s social networking presence. I use LinkedIn and Facebook to list and promote some of our open jobs. I personally spend an enormous amount of time on Facebook working on the rescue’s visibility and taking advantage of the viral reach to help us find homes for our horses all over the country.

    Admittedly, I also spend entirely too much time surfing Facebook, keeping up with family and friends, and learning more about my motorcycles and the skills needed to be competitive.

  17. What are your most useful tools you use to do your job?

    I use dozens of Internet tools to help reach out to various sources to find great candidates. I use a fantastic applicant tracking tool to help keep information/history/resumes/details on literally thousands of people who have applied to work here in the past several years. That said, my number one tool in my arsenal is my passion: my passion for Watchfire, for technology, and for helping great people build great careers. Without my passion, I’d just be going through the motions.

  18. What would be your dream job?

    In a lot of ways, my current role is my dream job. I work for a great company that’s growing and expanding by the day, in an exciting, growing industry. I spend much of my days finding employees that will help us continue that growth, and helping keep those employee relationships great even after the honeymoon is over. I used to have what I thought was a ‘dream job’ as the service and support center manager for the world’s largest manufacturer/distributor of remote control hobby products. I loved what I did, but found it is incredibly difficult to remain passionate about my hobby in my own hours when it also is my work. There was no escaping work, no going to a contest and just being silly or blowing off steam. I was always the face of the company, whether on the Internet or on the flying field. I don’t miss that pressure at all.

  19. What makes you laugh during the workday?

    I’d have to say some of the interesting things candidates say and do make me laugh. I could write a book on the unusual behaviors of some candidates. Some people will make the strangest claims and promise the oddest things, or make the craziest assumptions. The reasons given for leaving former jobs can sometimes really get creative!

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