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US property firm surprises staff with US$10m in bonuses

Baltimore, Maryland

HARDLY anyone knew what was inside the red envelopes handed out at a Maryland real estate firm's annual holiday party. So when employees at St John Properties tore them open last Saturday, the surprise was palpable.

Eyebrows jumped. Hands flew to mouths. And tears flowed - lots and lots of them.

Inside the envelopes were holiday bonuses averaging US$50,000 and totalling US$10 million, life-changing sums based solely on tenure. One man, a maintenance technician who started at the company in 1981, received more than US$200,000.

"I was in shock," Stanley Ches told the Today show. "I'm still in shock. Everybody was shaking me down and giving me hugs."

The unusually high bonuses drew a rush of attention to the Baltimore-based firm, which has clients in eight states. After announcing them publicly on Monday, the company's phones rang continuously.

Its Facebook page got comments such as, "Am I the 199th employee?" and "Are you all hiring? Asking for a friend." The story continued making headlines on Wednesday. St John Properties's offices kept buzzing with excitement.

"I just hope other companies look at this and realise that the employees are who they are," company president Larry Maykrantz told The Washington Post.

Executives started working on the surprise several months ago and were "sworn to secrecy", he said.

They wanted to do something big to celebrate hitting a goal set in 2005: developing 20 million square feet of commercial space. The achievement doubled the firm's footprint from 14 years earlier and brought the worth of its portfolio to US$3.5 billion.

Mr Maykrantz said company leaders thought it was important to recognise everyone's role and to do so based not on title but on tenure "to show that all of us are equal in achieving this goal".

They considered bonuses totalling US$1 million, US$2 million and US$5 million, founder and chairman Edward St John said in a video released by the company. "I looked at the numbers and they just did not impress me," he said.

In the end, he decided that a sum of US$10 million would recognise the company's 198 employees "in a meaningful way". With that amount, people would get cheques of up to US$270,000.

"I steer the boat, but they are the ones that run the boat," the 81-year-old Mr St John said. "They are the ones that make the boat go." He started the company back in 1971 with a team of just two employees.

A video clip from the event showed teary-eyed employees embracing the CEO and other executives after opening the envelopes.

"He just paid off my house," one man told the camera, gesturing toward Mr St John. One woman told company leaders that she planned to buy a Corvette. Others said they would be able to pay off their children's tuition fees.

"I kept hearing, 'I am finally debt-free for the first time in my life,'" Mr Maykrantz said.

Danielle Velenzia, who has worked for St John Properties for 19 years, had to pause to collect herself as she considered the impact of her bonus.

The accounts payable specialist said in the company video that it was "huge" as a mother of five and grandmother of five who took in her in-laws several years ago.

"What happened tonight was magical," she said. "This has been life changing to me today."  WP