Working at WMS a good gamble
Employees say gaming company is open to their ideas
Composer Josh Moshier at the keyboards, he adds music to video games & slots. Profile of WMS Gaming. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
Back in its Chicago office, you'll find WMS Gaming employees at their desks playing cards or board games online because, yep, that's part of the job.
"It's fun to come into work every day,'' said Brent Walker, a senior artist who creates slot machine illustrations. "You're not counting the hours until you get to leave at 5 o'clock.''
Games alone, though, aren't enough to get a company to the top of the list in the Chicago Tribune's Top Workplaces survey, conducted by WorkplaceDynamics, an Exton, Pa.-based consultancy.
Employees say the culture at Waukegan-based WMS Industries fosters work-life balance and an open exchange of ideas.
Say you're in accounting, and you've come up with what you believe is the next great slot machine. There's an app for that called Spark. Employees post and promote ideas on the Web-based application, while management poses challenges and solicits votes for solutions to potential hurdles.
In the last three years, Spark has received more than 4,000 ideas. Some have led to large organizational changes: One employee idea about a new way to search for patents was implemented companywide. Other smaller suggestions mean a lot to employees, such as adding ATMs and improving cell phone reception at the Chicago campus.
The company also prides itself on not pigeonholing employees. Rose was a project coordinator when he came to WMS 12 years ago. He planned to stay a year or two, bulk up his resume, then leave. He's now senior director of game studios, overseeing game development for the entire company.
"There are plenty of examples of people switching departments to learn about another aspect of the business,'' said Damon Gura, senior director of the company's Web platform group. "You're expected to maximize your skills and maximize what you can bring to the company."
Those pinball machines in the break room hint at WMS' evolution from Williams Manufacturing Co., founded in Chicago in 1943 by Harry Williams, a Stanford University-trained engineer who devised the "tilt" mechanism for pinball machines that could sense when people were trying to cheat by nudging the machine.
The company's name changed as it adapted to making home video games in the 1980s and casino and video lottery games in the early 1990s. Now casino games, such as slot machines based on movies like "The Wizard of Oz" and " The Godfather," can include everything from sensory-immersion gaming (surround sound and a special chair to hear and feel what's happening on the screen) to community-oriented slot machines that allow players to bet together.
"We've seen the company grow from being unknown in the industry to being (around) the No. 2 spot in gaming,'' Gura said.
In the fiscal year ended June 30, WMS Industries earned $112 million on sales of $765 million, up 8 percent. Gura said that kind of growth is important to retaining employees.
Janice Rike, senior vice president of human resources for WMS Industries, said the company's goal is to "attract and retain the best talent" through its fun and open culture but also by offering a 401(k) match; health, dental and vision plans; and paternity leave. As part of its survey for the Tribune, WorkplaceDynamics recognized WMS with a special award in the category of company benefits, based on standout scores for employee responses to specific survey statements.
The company boasts a fitness center and cafeteria and awards special "thank you" days off as perks.
In addition to awards such as employee of the year and employee of the month, colleagues can dub co-workers employees of the "moment" to call attention to special contributions.
The company has 1,800 employees in 13 countries, and Chief Executive Brian Gamache holds monthly Bagels with Brian, where he answers questions and gathers suggestions. In fact, employees persuaded him to make all vending-machine coffee free.
People are encouraged to have a life outside of work, and employees say it's one of the reasons they don't want to leave. During his off hours, Josh Moshier plays in a rock band, The Moshier-Lebrun Collective. But recently he was holed up in his office composing the two-second sounds that reels on a slot machine make when they spin.
Lead producer Jennifer Healy is part of a women's networking group at WMS. While their ranks are growing, women are still scarce in the gaming world, but Healy said she likes the easy, open culture that allows such groups to crop up.
WMS has 125 openings companywide and expects more in the future, Rike said.
"I'd love to be inundated with resumes," she said.