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API stemmed high turnover by changing company culture

Employee relations vice president Andrew Sirlin, right, and

Employee relations vice president Andrew Sirlin, right, and executive vice president Ramzi Kamel at the API office in Melville on Tuesday Feb. 9, 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Accommodations Plus International’s business growth had been a mixed blessing. Its family atmosphere deteriorated, employees increasingly grumbled about feeling unappreciated, and many quit. Plus, operations ran less smoothly.

“We were at risk of losing business,” said Ramzi Kamel, 38, executive vice president of the 31-year-old international travel management company in Melville and a nephew of its three owners. “Company culture was the issue. People were overworked, and morale suffered.”

API’s problems started in June 2013 when it began to add employees. Over a 22-month period it tripled its roster — from 77 to more than 200 workers — to keep pace with demand for its services.

Tipping point: 100

According to experts, businesses lose their family feeling when they reach 100 employees. That’s considered the tipping point when rank-and-file employees experience diminished face time with the owners. But as companies grow, experts say, department heads can imbue the workplace with a collegial air by organizing social events and outings for their teams. They can also convey respect for their employees by empowering them to improve the way they do their jobs.

“When you feel in control of your job and own it, you like it,” said Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, a research and advisory group of Deloitte Consulting LLP in Oakland, California.

As a firm serving the airline industry with a 24-hour technology-supported operations center, API provides a range of assistance, including vetting and arranging overnight lodgings for flight crews around the globe and streamlining the billing process with a master invoice for each hotel. Its 70-plus clients include Jet Blue Airlines, Air New Zealand and Latam Airlines Group, which encompasses 14 Latin American carriers.

API, which receives commissions and management fees from hotels, booked 6 million rooms in 2015, a 300 percent jump from less than 2 million rooms in 2010. Last year the firm moved into its current 30,000-square-foot office space; it previously operated in about half that space spread over two locations, one in Lindenhurst and the other in Massapequa. API employs about 175 people on Long Island, and it has offices in other places, including Colorado, Brazil and India.

Last May, API tapped consultant Andrew Sirlin, owner of Corporate Culture Solutions in Melville, to restore its feel-good corporate culture and stem employee departures; six months later it hired Sirlin as vice president of employee relations, a new position.

Sirlin, 57, conducted anonymous surveys and more than 50 one-on- one confidential interviews. Since then, he has sought to improve API’s culture in various ways, including holding departmental town hall-style meetings, training leadership to become better communicators, and outlining a career development plan for all employees who want one.

The firm also has stepped up recognition efforts, publicly praising workers at departmental meetings and giving gift cards to people who work or are on standby during emergencies, such as snowstorms.

Sirlin also has developed a string of social events, including holiday luncheons and a Halloween costume contest. And in the works is a Wall of Fame, which will honor those with API for at least five years.

Employee input

While applauding API for promptly hiring an expert to address its challenges, Ronni Rosen, a business adviser with the state Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University, suggested allowing workers to come up with their own solutions to their complaints since “they’re the ones in the trenches.”

Sirlin said he routinely encourages employees to come to him with their problems and their solutions, but he also wants to meet with workers who don’t have a remedy for a troubling issue.

Bersin also recommended allowing team members to interview and weigh in on job applicants. This approach is apt to make current employees feel “more connected” to new hires at the outset, he said.

“It’s a very reasonable idea,” responded Sirlin. But he said that based on his consulting experience, the more people involved in a hiring decision, the more complicated and longer the process becomes, because it’s “difficult to get a consensus.”. A prolonged hiring process can also mean losing out on very talented candidates, who are likely to be swooped up quickly by other firms, Sirlin added.

Still, in a departure from past practices, API has begun posting job openings internally and interviewing interested employees before seeking candidates from the outside.

“Retention has dramatically changed,” said Sirlin, noting that before he joined API 37 employees had called it quits in a 12-month period, while only seven have left in the last six months.

For her part, Anna Ippolito, 44, a senior global accounts manager who has been with the firm for eight years, said she has noticed a palpable difference in morale. The improvement, she said, shows that API’s owners are “listening to their employees and dedicated to change.”


Accommodations Plus International, Melville

Founded: 1984

Owners: Tony, Fred and Joe Kamel

Clients: More than 70 airlines

2015 hotel rooms booked: 6 million


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