Extended family @ work

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Bassett Mechanical rallies together, recognized for demonstrating compassion for employee in need

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Financial guy Jay Sauter wasn’t the type of person who routinely sported a moustache. But the photo of him and 70 of his Bassett Mechanical coworkers all wearing moustaches, both homegrown and the paste-on kind, is one of his family’s most cherished belongings.

“It makes you laugh just looking at it,” said his former employer, Kim Bassett, president and CEO of Bassett Mechanical in Kaukauna, which considers Sauter part of its extended family.

Sauter, 59, who served as chief financial officer at Bassett, passed away May 2 of pancreatic cancer after marking 30 years at the mechanical contractor. His male colleagues grew stashes in November 2014 for “Movember,” a global men’s health initiative. It’s just one of a slew of reasons Bassett Mechanical was selected as the recipient of the 2015 Compassionate Employer Award presented by Community Benefit Tree and New North B2B magazine.

Now in its second year, the Compassionate Employer Award recognizes northeast Wisconsin employers for outstanding efforts to support an employee or the family of an employee facing an unexpected accident or medical crisis. Such support through all the hours of missed work and mounting medical bills helps keep the employee connected with their employer throughout their recovery.

The Compassionate Employer Award program aims to encourage employers to have protocols in place for unplanned employee crises. Employees and their families were able to nominate companies from across the New North region for acts of remarkable compassion during the past few years, and a select committee evaluated nearly 20 nominations for the 2015 Compassionate Employer Award.

Sauter’s wife, Kris, and daughters Elizabeth and Kathryn, nominated Bassett Mechanical for the many “kind, compassionate and caring” acts those at the mechanical contractor showed not just during Sauter’s illness, but throughout his entire 30-year tenure there.

“Bassett believes genuine concern and empathy contribute much to creating a vibrant work environment while nurturing relationships as well as teamwork,” Sauter’s family wrote in nominating Bassett for the award. “They understand and demonstrate that all benefit when employees feel valued, cared for and supported.”

‘Hand up’ philosophy handed down

Founded in 1936 as Bassett Refrigeration by Bassett’s great-uncle E.W. “Al” Bassett, Bassett Mechanical remains family-owned. Her grandfather came aboard in 1945 followed by her dad, Bill, in 1974. She was named president and CEO five years ago, and her father remains chairman of the board.

Bassett said her father passed along the Bassett philosophy of treating employees, vendors and customers with respect.

“We check titles at the door,” Bassett said. “At the end of the day, business is people and the success is because of everyone rallying together to make it a successful organization.”

It’s not about any single or handful of individuals. “It’s everybody working together, so you have to take care of each other,” she said. “You’re together 8 to 10 hours a day.”

A tiny bit less terrible

Nothing can erase the panic and loss a family feels when illness or tragedy strikes. But with as large a part of life as work plays, an understanding employer can make things a hair less awful for everyone involved.

“The Compassionate Employer Award is about businesses showing compassion to their employees when they or a family member have gone through a medical crisis,” said Community Benefit Tree co-founder and director Heidi Frederickson.

This year’s 19 nominees ranged from small mom-and-pop businesses to large corporations helping employees and their families through everything from car accidents to cancer.

Winners are those who made a “huge impact in an employee’s life,” according to Frederickson. But with so many worthy entrants, choosing just one was not easy.

“It’s a very difficult decision, because if an employee took the time to fill out an application, that says something about every employer that had an application submitted,” Frederickson said.

Community Benefit Tree has its roots in the charity golf outing she and her mother, Karla Wolfinger, started 23 years ago in the name of Frederickson’s father, Larry Wolfinger. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 54. The Larry Wolfinger Charity Golf Outing first helped the family of a little girl get her an artificial eye and hasn’t stopped helping families since.

Frederickson’s father’s passing exposed her family to the reality that the pain of a loved one’s death goes beyond the heartache.

“It’s not the type of medical crisis that matters, it’s the expense and financial crisis, with bills rolling in after the fact, that is so hard on the family,” she said.

Support and flexibility

Sauter underwent aggressive chemotherapy shortly after his diagnosis in September of last year, requiring two hospitalizations.

“Throughout this time, Bassett friends provided prayers, daily positive messages in the form of cards, notes, texts and phone calls to both Jay as well as us,” said his wife Kris in her nomination for Bassett.

Sauter wanted to keep working as long as possible. Bassett allowed him flexibility in his schedule to work from home when he wasn’t feeling strong enough to come into the office, partake in conference calls, and they even scheduled planning meetings around his treatments.

“The opportunity to continue his career and contribute professionally while surrounded by a group of caring and supportive colleagues provided a sense of normalcy and was a source of encouragement, strength and hope as Jay journeyed through cancer treatment,” noted his wife, Kris.

When the Bassett team learned the Sauters were going on a family vacation to a sunny locale, they saw him off with a bon voyage package including flip flops, a big straw hat, a Hawaiian shirt and swim trunks.

That proved laughter and humor are sometimes the best medicine, the Sauters said.

“Bassett truly views employees as an extended family, valuing each colleague as an important member of the team,” the family wrote in its nomination.

Knowing how much Sauter loved golf and how much pride he took in being a Chick Evans Caddie Scholar while at University of Wisconsin in the 1970s, the Bassett team contacted the Evans Scholar corporate office and secured a surprise care package of Evans paraphernalia for him.

Bassett Mechanical and its employees rallied around “Team Jay,” the Relay for Life team daughter Kathryn Sauter organized at St. Norbert College in De Pere, helping boost participation and funds raised.

“We lost a coworker and a friend in Jay, and we pledged to Jay that we would take care of his family because he was part of our family for so long,” Kim Bassett said. “Even if you can’t change the outcome, you can rally behind them to show support and hope.”

She described Sauter as a highly intelligent man with a dry sense of humor who always kept the big picture in mind.

“He was a great part of our team, always willing to help in whatever capacity he could,” Bassett said.

He even filled in an open position just to help her out. “It was completely outside of his wheelhouse, but he stepped in and he did a great job, and he really helped us as an organization grow into who we are today.”

Behind the curtains

Companies don’t get chosen for the Compassionate Employer Award just by sprouting facial hair. But the Movember moustache stunt emblemized the overall sense of employees as family, according to Bassett.

“It’s our culture,” she said. “We treat everyone here as if they were part of the Bassett family.”

The Sauters say they’ve witnessed many examples of Bassett’s generosity and respect for employees and the community over the years. When a fellow employee was in a severe car accident, Bassett employees donated their vacation days so he wouldn’t lose pay while hospitalized. The company also gave gift cards to part-timers at Christmas during the recession so they could provide a better holiday for their families.

“When a Bassett Mechanical family member is experiencing a challenge, the entire organization supports those in need,” the Sauters said in their nomination. Bassett leadership and employees are “always quick to volunteer to support families in need through team effort, providing emotional support, gifts of time to assist with tasks of daily living, and financial contributions.”

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.