Fidelity: Build it and they will come back

Sep. 25—MERRIMACK

F idelity Investments offers the kind of environment workers take for granted in Silicon Valley.

The cafeteria at one of New Hampshire's largest employers includes a gourmet coffee shop, a salad bar and several other food stations. On a recent weekday, one lunch counter was serving Buffalo chicken wraps made to order. Ask for grilled chicken rather than fried and you pay less, thanks to a wellness discount applied to healthy choices.

Either way, employees eat for next to nothing: The company gives everyone $10 a day toward lunch, a pandemic-era move designed to lure remote workers back to the office, where other perks designed to attract and retain them await.

At a sprawling complex designed to be a hub for thousands of workers. the cafeteria is the only place you'll find them in large numbers these days

Only about a quarter of Fidelity's 6,700 Merrimack employees work on-campus on any given day. One day in late August, most desks were vacant, resembling a weekend more than a work day.

While the campus might appear to be new digs awaiting employees to fill them, Fidelity has been on a hiring spree.

The Boston-based company has filled 1,900 jobs in Merrimack so far this year, including 1,200 new positions. It currently has about 670 open jobs, with more than half in customer service, about 20% in technology and the rest in business support, operations and other roles.

Someday, the campus will buzz again and employees will be standing in line on Buffalo chicken day.

In the meantime, no one is playing cornhole in the cafeteria at lunchtime, and it's been many months since anyone organized a softball game at the company diamond. Fidelity officials say activity will ramp up as more employees return to the office.

Rising in Merrimack

Fidelity opened the Merrimack campus in 1996 on property purchased from Digital Equipment Corp. The 544-acre site includes two LEED-certified buildings totaling 1.2 million square feet of space. It also has two "farms" — a 12-acre site home to one of the largest solar arrays in the state and a small one under construction that will be used to grow organic vegetables.

Other features include a honey bee operation and, soon, a Monarch butterfly garden. Walking trails connect the two office buildings and other parts of the campus.

Recreation amenities were heavily used before COVID-19.

"In a typical summer, if we were all here sort of pre-pandemic, what you would have seen is every intramural sport going on out on the field," said Tiffany Miller, head of digital technology for Fidelity and one of two regional co-leaders at the Merrimack campus. "There's a lot to offer here for the associates. That's something we take a lot of pride in."

In August, the headcount Tuesday through Thursday averaged about 1,500, said Miller, an engineer who joined the company 23 years ago. This month, the company planned to bring more workers back to campus.

"We're starting to see a steady rise, which is good," said Miller, who described Fidelity's return-to-the-office plan as a "slow, measured approach."

Many of the people the company has hired over the past year have never worked in Merrimack.

"They've joined, working remote, and now we're excited to bring them back and really give them the full experience here," said Sean Howell, the other regional co-leader for the campus. Like Miller, Howell has worked for Fidelity for 23 years, beginning his career writing for the now-defunct company newspaper. (It's been replaced by digital communications.)

Fidelity's New Hampshire workers manage about $43 billion in assets on behalf of more than 204,000 individuals, and $3.3 billion held by institutions.

More than 30% of the Granite State employees work directly with customers and clients every day. Those include the entry-level call-center workers who field questions from customers about their accounts.

The campus is headquarters to the company's fixed income investment management group and the mobile technology hub that developed Fidelity's smartphone app. Workers here specialize in technology, investing, client and relationship management, and operations.

Virtual trading floor

Tressa Webb, head of investment services for the company's fixed income division, works with teams that handle Fidelity's bond and money market portfolios.

When the trading floor is full, about 140 workers in a spacious room handle complex transactions all day long. It can get pretty noisy, she said, but not on this day. Most of the team members were working from home — something they did not do before COVID-19.

Within a few days after the pandemic hit in March 2020 and office complexes were forced to close for safety protocols, Fidelity created the support structure to enable its teams to work remotely, Webb said.

"The technology has been phenomenal such that we're able to utilize Zoom and other remote tools to simulate all of this," said Webb, who joined the company 22 years ago. "When this floor isn't full, everything I just described is taking place as we speak, but it's taking place through different types of Zoom communities and things that we've set up."

The Merrimack campus is one of 11 regional sites Fidelity has around the globe. The company's New Hampshire presence also includes investor centers in Nashua and Portsmouth.

The privately held company, founded in 1946, employs more than 57,000 people in the United States and nine other countries across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

As of June 30, Fidelity counted 40 million individual investors, $9.9 trillion in assets under administration and $3.7 trillion in total discretionary assets, such as mutual funds and managed accounts.

State helps recruiting

While free snacks, concierge services and an on-site gym are great perks, Fidelity needs still more firepower to attract workers. The state of New Hampshire has been helping the company spread its message to potential recruits through job fairs and other workforce promotions.

"We work with all employers of all sizes, but we've got some pretty serious expansions going on — Fidelity, BAE Systems, SIG Sauer over on the Seacoast, Lonza," said Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the state Department of Business and Economic Affairs. "And all of them are really looking for a more trained, more educated type workforce. We work with them to try to identify where those workforces are and how they can get at them."

One of the reasons the state is so aggressive with major employers like Fidelity is the growing threat from companies outside the state who hire New Hampshire residents to work remotely, Caswell said.

"We have a lot of people in New Hampshire who work for Facebook. That's great. They're getting paid, and all the other aspects to it," he said. "But to the extent we can help our New Hampshire-based employers employ those Facebook employees, it's a little better in the end for the full economy than having them work for a California company."

Career pathways

Although financial acumen is a plus, it's not required for customer service jobs at Fidelity.

"We certainly do hire folks with four-year finance degrees, but it's not actually our bread and butter," said Wendy Valeri, who is director of candidate experience and interviews potential hires.

This year, Fidelity has hired about 500 new recruits for customer-facing positions — the people who answer inbound calls.

Most of the calls come from customers who are trying to move money or open a new account.

"Very often the calls we get are what I call a 'confidence' call. They've started the process online, but they're not quite confident enough to hit the button by themselves," said Valeri, an 18-year Fidelity veteran.

About 800 Fidelity employees in Merrimack work in customer service positions — Valeri said it's not unusual for 500 of them to be rookies.

After six months, most will move on to other roles, receiving additional training along the way.

New recruits

Jesse Ngo, who started with Fidelity in Boston nearly a decade ago, recently joined the Merrimack campus as a senior manager for the emerging leader program, which nurtures recent college graduates.

"It's something I wish existed when I was first starting out at Fidelity," he said.

Through the Fidelity Young Professionals Network, Ngo mentors new hires like Jack Lazott and Griffin O'Connor.

Lazott, who got his associate's degree from NHTI, joined the company as a customer relationship advocate about a year ago. He's now an associate with the company's High Net Worth Service, working as a business analyst.

"Once they see you get through this first level, and you're proficient, then they're like 'All right, we'd be willing to teach you more skills,' and they put you through more training and trust that you're willing to talk to their million-dollar private premium service team," Lazott said.

O'Connor, who graduated from Saint Anselm College in May, joined the company over the summer. He's working his way through the onboarding process and has been assigned to a team.

"You get a leader who will hold your hand through the process, help you get your test materials and study for your series (financial securities) tests," he said. "You slowly move on to helping clients in different capacities."

And he has a mentor like Ngo to show him where to find the best food in the cafeteria. But he's on his own on Buffalo chicken day.

"I don't even like Buffalo (chicken)," Ngo said.

mcote@unionleader.com