A Case Study by Dennis Costa
Company Background: A PBM Like No Other
It is one thing to define the purpose and values of an up-and-coming enterprise among the upper brass within the cozy confines of a conference room. It is different from applying that philosophy and basically living it out in the business’s daily operations and projecting it successfully to clients. In other words, you can talk the talk but not necessarily walk the walk.
The latter certainly applies to Abarca, a company that has disrupted the healthcare industry in recent years with its tech-based solutions. The company, which has offices in Puerto Rico and Florida, started as a pharmacy benefits management (PBM) provider but, of late, has branched out into other health-related services, primarily through cutting-edge digital offerings such as its proprietary Darwin™ platform. Today, the company manages more than $2 billion in drug expenditures for millions of U.S. citizens.
Abarca has also garnered accolades for its work environment, corporate culture, and the level of commitment and wherewithal shown by its employees to deliver the best possible service to clients, no matter the circumstances. One recent recognition, arguably the most important so far in its young history, was delivered by the well-respected research firm Kincentric as part of its annual Best Employers awardees.
As vice president of Talent Strategy at Abarca, Mercibel González has been the center of this transformation. A CPA by training, González had held leadership roles at several Fortune 500 corporations. Still, Abarca’s unique vision espoused by the company’s founder, president, and CEO, Jason Borschow, presented a unique opportunity for González to help the business in its rapid rise.
“We have had very aggressive growth over the past few years,” González said. “When I got on board in January 2017, we had 150 Abarcans. In 2019 alone, we increased our payroll by 100 employees, and this year, we are onboarding 70 employees more so far. We expect to add 100 people by the end of this year, notwithstanding everything that’s been going on,” she added that the company currently employs almost 500 employees.
The Challenge: Making Abarca’s Values Stick & Lived Through the Business
González began her tenure at Abarca in a more internal consulting capacity. However, the head of Human Resources (HR) at the time soon left, and she was given the department’s reins. One of the first decisions that González carried out as head of the department was to change its name to Talent Strategy, and for a good reason. “We are here to enable the culture and values of the company. It is about how I can support the organization with their needs, being that strategic partner, not merely having an administrative role in HR because Abarca’s most important asset is its people. We’re a service organization,” she said.
By the time González signed on with the company, the values that define Abarca had been set in place but were not fully deployed or implemented. Adding to the challenge was the company’s rapid growth, with upwards of 100 employees joining its ranks yearly from different backgrounds and espousing other ideas. “When you arrive at Abarca, it is not really about your title or any of that; it is about responsibility, how you collaborate and influence others to get the work done,” she said.
Notably, Abarca employees are known as Abarcans, which are defined as forwarding thinkers who are constantly in pursuit of a better way of healthcare. Six core values influence all Abarcans in their hiring decisions, how they treat each other, and how they approach problems. These values include “humble competence,” a purpose-driven approach to delivering yet grounded in humility simultaneously, and “fire in the belly,” which translates as positive energy, contagious passion, and an unrelenting will to succeed.
“That humble competence aspect is the most difficult to identify in interviews because, at that stage, everyone is showcasing what they can bring to the table,” González added.
Other values include an “off-road” sensibility based on expanding out of one’s comfort zone and exploring new paths. A “like family” environment eschews internal competition and celebrates each other’s successes. An “all-in” mentality involves a profound commitment to seeking new and better ways and a “shake it off” philosophy that stresses having fun. “It is about not necessarily having a negative perspective on failure,” González explained. “It is about embracing it as a learning experience.”
The Solution: A Driven, Results-Oriented Approach to Talent Strategy
It just so happened that, on the same day that González came on board with the company, the founder and chief executive of marketing firm DuartePino, Antonio Duarte, had also signed on with Abarca as part of its executive team, under its innovative “fractional” business model. González and Duarte defined the values that set Abarca apart from the rest of the pack. In addition, they are finding ways to take that philosophy out of the conference room and onto every company desk and beyond.
“Antonio did a great job of figuring out how to translate our values directly to our employees and project it outwards,” said González. “I have had several conversations with clients, and they have said, ‘Wow, you guys are unique, incredibly open, and collaborative.’ Many clients appreciate that kind of corporate culture.”
“When we sat down, we worked out a three-year internal communications plan,” remembered Duarte. “We wanted to increase the role of the Abarca values as a cornerstone of the company’s internal culture, improve our numbers in terms of the main drivers highlighted in HR surveys such as Kincentric’s, and highlight Abarca’s corporate culture as one of the pillars of our external communications.”
Simultaneously, Duarte and his team worked with González and her team on further refining the Abarca brand and its sales strategies, focusing on integrated internal and external communications. “We leveraged each other a lot,” González said. “When we started, most of our employees did not know about the concepts that set the company apart from the rest, so we went with a full deployment that entailed training sessions and overall communication initiatives.”
“By the time everybody in the company started speaking the same language with regards to values, Antonio had basically relaunched the brand in parallel, so we sat down again to further develop the corporate culture and bring the message across from a value proposition standpoint, to our employees and potential employees,” González explained.
As part of such efforts, Abarca eventually put together one of the most impressive benefits and career development packages in any industry. Among the company’s offerings is Abarcan Growth, a multi-faceted advancement program that includes tuition reimbursement for further education and professional certifications and a 12-week leadership journey training program that gives Abarcans the skills to become leaders in their respective roles.
There is also Abarcan Care, a carefully curated employee benefits program that features a holistic wellness program with life coaches, online cooking classes, story time for employees’ children, a fitness program for people working remotely, and a recognition program awards Abarcans who go above and beyond. “Even people who come from outside to be interviewed see that value proposition through what we put out there,” González highlighted. “We showcase the culture.”
The Results: Steadfast Against COVID-19, Awarded #3 Best Employer by Kincentric Global Certification & an Awesome Like Family Corporate Culture
Before long, the combined efforts of DuartePino and the Talent Strategy team at Abarca paid off handsomely. Apart from the Best Employer recognition awarded by Kincentric, the company has registered improvements across the board regarding employee engagement and overall satisfaction in working at the firm.
For instance, according to the global employers’ survey in 2020, 95% of Abarcans would recommend the company as a great workplace. Similarly, there was a year-over-year increase of 34 percentage points in Abarcans, reporting that they have career growth opportunities at Abarca, and a 24-percentage point increase in Abarcans. The latter believe that the company provides competitive pay and benefits.
However, perhaps there was no better evidence of the strength that the company gained in its values and culture than the events that took place in March 2020. Although Abarca had weathered its fair share of challenges until then, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lockdown measures it caused, represented an unprecedented situation for the company, much as it did for the rest of the world.
Using Abarca’s strong sense of values and culture of preparedness as a foundation, the company rapidly enacted its business continuity plan, seamlessly transitioning all 400-plus employees to remote work by providing the necessary tools and technology. “When it became clear that we would be working virtually for a prolonged time, we swiftly implemented programs to keep our team connected from home,” Duarte commented.
All the while, Abarca continued providing quality service without interruption, further cementing the company as an organization with the right tools to continue expanding and setting an example throughout the whole industry. And it all boils down to the values that every one of its employees lives and breathes.
“I spent seven years in management consulting, and even if you have the best system put in place, with the most robust and defined processes, if there’s no heart there, you won’t be able to achieve anything,” González said. “That’s what gets the ball rolling at the end of the day.”
*The author, Dennis Costa, is a senior business journalist and editor with more than 20 years of experience contributing to renowned publications, including El Nuevo Día and Caribbean Business, reporting on local finance, business, and politics. Recipient of an Overseas Press Club award, Dennis also authored and took part in multiple front-page stories, breaking news, and special in-depth reports.