Based on the view alone, it’s easy to imagine why employees love working at AbeBooks. Perched above Victoria’s Gorge Waterway, the company’s brand-new headquarters offer a sweeping vista of downtown Victoria, from historic Point Ellice all the way to the Inner Harbour.
In most firms the choicest view, the corner office, would be reserved for senior management. At AbeBooks the spot is occupied by the company lunchroom – a large, glass-walled cafeteria where workers can enjoy complimentary fruit and beverages and watch the ferries and rowboats drift past. It’s one of many egalitarian touches designed to keep the company’s staff happy and productive. There’s no apparent dress code, and personal knick-knacks liven up the cubicles. There’s also a foosball table for those who enjoy a little recreation at break time. “We try to have low hierarchies here,” explains president and CEO Hannes Blum, whose modest four-by-five-metre office, windowless on three sides, underscores the point. “It’s a very easygoing company. We have flexible hours; nobody’s checking time cards. We put a lot of trust in our employees.” AbeBooks was founded in 1996 by two Victoria couples, Rick and Vivian Pura and Keith and Cathy Waters, with a simple mission: to link book buyers with a vast inventory of titles sitting on bookshelves around the world. Today the company is one of the world’s largest online book supermarkets, providing access to an estimated 100 million books through 13,500 affiliated retailers worldwide. With as many as 25,000 transactions a day, AbeBooks sold US$170 million worth of books in the U.S. in 2006 and now employs more than 200 people at offices in Victoria, Dusseldorf, Germany and Berkeley, California. For employees such as Jessica Jefferson, that growth represents opportunity. Jefferson started five years ago as a $30,000-a-year customer service agent fresh out of high school and was recently promoted to manager of customer support. A single mother of a three-year-old boy, she says AbeBooks gave her the flexibility to raise her son while still pursuing her career goals. “It’s not a whole lot of money, but we’re able to focus on our families,” she says. “If they offered me $5,000 more to go to a different company, I’d turn it down because of the way this company treats me.” My visit happens to coincide with a fundraising event in which Jefferson and four co-workers rappel down the side of a nearby building. Also rappelling for charity on this particular day is Heather Bowness, who came to work in the AbeBooks marketing department five months ago after earning her BA in Greek and Roman studies. “I wanted to be somewhere in the book industry, and I’d heard about [AbeBooks], so I just applied,” says Bowness, who relies on the research skills she learned at UVic to track down and sign up new Web clients. Bowness cites a range of small but important perks in the benefit package that impact her daily life. For example, she takes advantage of the free monthly bus pass and access to the new gym in the building’s lower floor. But there are also annual bonuses, interest-free loans on computer equipment and generous allowances for chiropractic and other supplemental health treatments, along with the full range of standard benefits. For AbeBooks, surviving in a high-tech world where skilled labour is at a premium means going that extra mile to find and train good people, Blum says. “The high-tech skill sets are so much in demand, you really have to up your game.” Back to Best Companies to Work for in B.C.