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Universal Orlando’s Bill Davis on Attracting Talent with a Great Culture

When unemployment is 3 percent and your company is surrounded by competitors eager to poach your best people, you have to maintain a reputation for being a stellar employer, according to Bill Davis, president and COO of Universal Orlando
Photo Credit: Universal Orlando

When unemployment is 3 percent and your company is surrounded by competitors eager to poach your best people, it isn’t enough to just pay well. You also have to maintain a reputation for being a stellar employer, according to Bill Davis, president and COO of Universal Orlando, the vacation destination that is home to three theme parks, six hotels and Universal CityWalk.

Davis points to a multi-pronged strategic approach to recruitment that involves investment in culture, innovation, education and the local community. Situated in a city that has fast become a burgeoning, business-friendly hub for innovation and creativity, Universal Orlando Resort aims to offer prospective team members the promise of an exciting career with a growth company that values more than just profits. As Davis explains in the following interview, when your people truly believe you care about them—and the world you both live in—they stay with you.

You’ve maintained Orlando is the ideal city for companies in the tourism industry.  There are other cities with robust tourism markets. Why Orlando above all?

You want to be here for a number of reasons. One, Orlando has great infrastructure. Two, we have a well-educated, motivated workforce. Three, we have a world-class airport, which makes it easier for people to get in and out of our area. Four, we have the second largest convention center, which draws a lot of people. Orlando is also considered the number one family destination in the U.S., if not the world, so right now, this city is kind of like the Superbowl of our industry, where the big game is, and not only are we here, but some of our industry’s best vendors are located here as well. And of course, the weather isn’t bad, either.

Given the low unemployment rate, what does Universal Orlando do to stay competitive in the war for talent?

I don’t think it’s one specific thing—it’s a number of things. When Tom Williams [chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Parks & Resorts] came out here from California in 1988, he had a particular philosophy on what he thought the company’s culture should be. Obviously, we need to offer competitive compensation packages, but a key item for us is the growth potential and career tracks people see when they come to work for us. They can see we are a growth company. Bright people in any industry generally want to be with companies that are growing. And we have a great parent company in NBCUniversal and Comcast.  Since we’ve become part of the company, they have just been terrifically supportive of everything we’re doing down here.

How would you compare what we’re seeing today with other periods of low unemployment that you’ve lived through?

I would say it’s very competitive. The unemployment rate here in Orlando is 3 percent. It’s very competitive at just about at every single level of people we hire, whether it’s a brand new person in the labor pool getting their first job to people who are engineers or PhDs. But we seem to be doing well.

Is poaching by nearby competitors an issue?

They do try.  But people like the culture once they get here and they really like the growth potential they see for their careers. This is a pretty cool  place.

What are some of the elements of a great corporate culture?

It starts at the top.  Our entire leadership team cares about making sure our team members have the resources to do their jobs.  We all care about making sure our team members have  the tools necessary to do the work they’re being asked to do. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than asking someone to hammer a nail and then giving them a nail and a screwdriver. It starts at the top and then it kind of permeates down to everyone else.

Every year, we do what we call our “TSAT,” or team satisfaction surveys, and of the approximately 25,000 team members, 75 to 80 percent take the survey and give us feedback. They tell us you’re doing good here or we’d like a little more of this or less of that, and where possible we respond to that feedback. So our team members feel, rightfully so, that they have a voice in how they’re able to do their jobs.

We also make sure new hires are a good fit with our culture. We’re looking for people who have a shared focus on the number one job we have, which is taking care of our guests. We believe if the team members have the resources to do their jobs, they’re going to be happier. If they’re happier, they’re going to take care of our guests, so our guest satisfaction is going to be strong—and quite frankly, it is very strong—so at the end of the day, we’re going to have a successful company.

Where do you find your candidates? Do you have partnerships in place with University of Central Florida and other schools?

We absolutely do—but it’s not only at the college level. When Universal came to Central Florida a little over 30 years ago, it was very important to Tom—and I know it’s very important to NBCU and Comcast, as well—that we are a part of the community and being part of the community means we have to be part of the educational side of the community as well. Our kids and our grandchildren are going to these schools, so we as a company have invested a lot of time, effort and, frankly, money in helping the schools in the Central Florida area, whether it’s elementary school or middle school or high school or the Rosen School of Hospitality Management at UCF. We have a number of people on advisory councils at UCF and I, myself, am on the advisory council at Stetson [University in DeLand, FL].

Another thing we do, and this is a little unique for our industry, is that we have an onsite operation that we call the Universal Education Center. It’s a program for 40 to 45 young people who may benefit from an alternative approach to education. They come here and basically go to school for half a day and then work a few hours. They also have a mentor, one of our full time directors or supervisors. A number of graduates of the UEC program work here full time now, which is terrific.


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