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Commentary: Embracing diversity adds to the bottom line

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 6, 2009 - On Jan. 25, St. Louis banker William Alan Donius testified at a hearing in Jefferson City on Senate Bill 109 , which would amend the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act to include gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered residents of Missouri. This article is an edited version of his testimony.

The Missouri Non-Discrimination Act should be amended to include sexual orientation. I am not addressing the human rights or the religious issues involved. There are others here better qualified to speak on those concerns. I am here to speak to a bottom-line business issue.

I feel qualified to address this; my expertise is based on my 30 years in the business world following business school, experience that includes 16 years in the banking sector and the past 12 as chairman and chief executive of the publicly traded Pulaski Bank in St. Louis.

Our bank instituted a sexual non-discrimination policy in 1998. Why did we do it? What were the results?

First, some background. Pulaski Bank was formed in 1922 by a group of Polish immigrants who faced discrimination in doing business with downtown banks. They chose to start their own bank to serve the Polish-speaking community. Almost 90 years later, with our business in the financial mainstream of St. Louis, we remain very sensitive to the issue of discrimination.

When I joined the bank in 1992, I was disturbed to hear stories of gay and lesbian employees who were fired from other banks and organizations simply for being gay. This was especially disconcerting to me: I am an openly gay man.

I realized workers and colleagues are not able to perform at a peak level when they live in fear that their jobs are at risk for simply being who they are. They are constantly distracted by watching what they say, being careful about where they go, fearful of whom they might bump into -- because a wrong step might result in their risk losing jobs, livelihoods, homes.

I was proud of Pulaski's tradition of treating employees as family, traditions my grandfather and father observed in their collective century of service to the bank and the community. I realized that we were not treating all employees equally by treating gays and lesbians differently.

I set forth to create a culture of inclusion by embracing diversity, by valuing individuals as part of the team, by encouraging collaboration and cooperation to create an engaged employee base necessary to grow the bank. I realized as we grew, our customer base was becoming increasingly diverse. As such it made sense to have an increasingly diverse workforce as well. Since we spend two-thirds of our waking lives at work, it was important to me to create the best possible workplace environment and culture within the bank.

The efforts to build an inclusive, collaborative culture proved successful over my 12-year tenure as CEO. Employees who feel respected and valued deliver superior customer service. Satisfied customers translate into enhanced shareholder value.

The bottom line result was that we were able to grow the bank nearly 800 percent to $1.3 billion in assets over a 12-year period. We opened 12 new bank locations and lending offices. We were voted "Best Place to Work" in St. Louis in 2007 (for employers 400-700 in size); received a Torch award from the Better Business Bureau for excellence in ethics and customer service in 2008. We were ranked by industry publication SNL, a financial research firm and information provider, as one of the top performing small banks in America in 2008.

I am certainly proud of these results. However, I am more proud of the culture that we created and the collective successes we achieved as a team.

In an atmosphere in which everyone feels welcome and appreciated, employees go the extra distance for the company. We benefited from very low employee turnover and correspondingly high retention rates. Most of all, employees view the bank as a "fun" place to work!

In closing, I would urge you to adopt same sex non-discriminatory language in Missouri as most of the Fortune 500 companies have done in the United States, along with Pulaski Bank. It is good for business, good for employees and good for the state of Missouri!

By adopting this language, we may well prevent people leaving this state, as I did 30 years ago at age 20 when I realized that I was gay and that Missouri was not a welcoming place.

Missouri cannot afford the loss of creative, talented people simply because we are not as progressive as other states.

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