Since the 1940s, musicians around the world have idolized the name Fender as the singular icon of the electric guitar — quite the accomplishment for an instrument initially cobbled together by inventor Leo Fender in his Southern California repair shop.

The Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, producer of the Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars favored by greats from Jimi Hendrix to Bruce Springsteen, currently employs about 1,500 workers in its U.S. manufacturing facility in California and at its corporate headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Such is the base of operations for EBN’s 2014 Benefits Professional of the Year, Heather Vertrees, benefits manager with Fender. While she’s only been with Fender for a couple of years — and has been in the benefits field for less than a decade — Vertrees has been honored for her commitment to a diverse staff, and a successful job in getting that employee base more actively involved in both wellness initiatives and an employer-sponsored retirement program.

“I knew the brand, but I don’t personally play any musical instruments — though I now have about 10 of them in my house as decorations,” she says. “But it’s cool when you think of the impact that this company has had on individuals and all the music that’s been created.”

Also see: 10 ways to design better wellness incentive programs

A native of Kentucky, Vertrees’ family moved to Arizona while she was in middle school and after a series of retail jobs in high school, she says she got a foot in the door in the HR field, landing a job as an HR/benefits assistant at a Tempe, Ariz.-based manufacturer.

“That’s where I dug in and learned a lot, and got involved in lots of great projects,” she says. “But I knew I wanted to move on to the managerial level.”

In February 2012, Vertrees joined Fender at its international corporate headquarters, which houses the company’s HR, legal, IT, marketing and R&D departments, as well as its  customer service center. Fender’s legendary guitars and other instruments are built by hand at a manufacturing facility in Corona, California, as well as a factory in Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.

Building engagement

And while Fender’s rock-’n’-roll-centered headquarters boast the standard mix of white-collar professionals — who, in typical fashion, still need plenty of help with their health and retirement benefits — Vertrees says her biggest challenge has been working to build engagement with the 800 employees at the company’s California manufacturing facility.

“We’ve got a mix of workers there whose ages average in the mid-40s, as we get people with a very long tenure,” she notes. “And there’s also a lot of Hispanic culture represented, and as a result, there are specific lifestyle and diet issues that meant that a wellness program could really work if we did it right.”

Vertrees helped implement Fender’s first outcomes-based wellness program through Virgin Pulse, which offers savings on health premiums for those who successfully participate.

“When I came on board, we changed our wellness program from a simple finger-prick program to a full blood draw biometric screening. We also worked to get our employees to actually take action, with a premium differential for participants. We want employees to have a healthy lifestyle — and yes, I know that’s not a very rock ’n’ roll kind of thing — so the biometric testing was a good start.”

Since then, 85% of employees have taken part in testing, and 66% have become involved in the Virgin Pulse wellness program. “Our foundation is that, ‘These are your health results, it’s really up to you to go and set a goal and get better overall results,’” she says. In the future, Vertrees says Fender hopes to get employees’ spouses involved in the program as well.

Also see: Employers reluctant to use ACA wellness incentives

When it comes to employee retirement savings plans, Vertrees says Fender’s California employees needed special encouragement, and she also figured out a way to customize the program.

“We went for a companywide ‘craftsman’ theme, using the Fender brand — just as a guitar is handmade out of wood, people need to work hard to end up with a good retirement — and we were able to better connect with our Hispanic workers by having all of those materials translated and available in Spanish,” she says. “That really resonated with them.”

Vertrees also spearheaded a change in the company’s 401(k) plan recordkeeper and helped to reinstate a modest match for participants; overall, Fender has seen a 25% increase in plan participation in the first year since she made the changes.

New benefit software system

Another particularly strong development she’s been involved in is the rollout of a new benefit software system that includes substantial employee self-service options; overall participation in that program reached some 99% during the first year it was offered during open enrollment.

She’s also overseen the launch of several innovative employee offerings, including a health advocacy program and a centralized employee discount program offered through Corporate Perks.

“I think I get the best of both worlds — I work with people on the vendor side, but I also get to work directly with our employees and talk to them about their personal issues. People like to be educated about the benefits we offer so they can pick what’s going to be right for them, and I really, really like that. Also, part of my job is to communicate with the rest of the HR staff to better work on plans and programs throughout the company.”

And as for those colorful guitars lining her office and her home? “Maybe one day I’ll learn to play,” she concedes. “I really am a big music fan and I do love to hear them played.”

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