COLUMBUS, Ga. - On the banks of the Chattahoochee River, behind a dazzling display of corporate glass, lies a long riverwalk of clay-colored bricks. At first glance, the bricks, each one engraved with a name, might be a monument to civic leaders or war victims. In this case, though, they are a tribute to workers at Total System Services Inc.

The processor's unique corporate culture transcends appearances, however. Atlanta-based Synovus Financial Corp., the majority owner, has been named one of Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For" for the past three years.

Total System is credited with helping to create a middle class in Columbus, once dominated by textile mills. The high-tech company's modern headquarters stands out against the old-fashioned city, but it has kept its small-town, family-style approach to relationships with its card issuers and it takes the same approach with its staff. Many large meetings begin with a prayer session. The company is recognized for its employee loyalty and many top executives have been with Synovus for dozens of years.

The rare attentiveness "is nothing new for us, it's just that we've gotten a little more refined, a little more sophisticated, and a little better at it every year," said Richard Ussery, chief executive officer.

There is perhaps no more tangible sign of the company's pampered employees than its slick new $100 million complex, completed in mid-1999 and home to 2,200 of 4,300 employees. The campus is lavish, outfitted with a fitness center, gift shop, beauty salon, game room, library, and bank branch.

The unique flavor goes beyond corporate perks. Mr. Ussery and company president Philip Tomlinson once entertained a company meeting with a Blues Brothers act. Top executives have posed for goofy posters mimicking famous movies that hang on company walls.

Employees - they call each other "team members" - had a hand in most design decisions and worked closely with architect Kevin Roche, who also designed the NationsBank Plaza in Atlanta. Eclectic artwork portrays themes of creativity, cultural diversity, and Georgian heritage. Fabrics for chairs and office partitions, patterned with various symbols, send subliminal messages. For example, some fabrics have "100%" woven into them to inspire teamwork. And all this was decided by a staff vote.

Great care has been taken to answer concerns raised by employees. End-row seats in the auditorium have been widened for bigger people. There is a separate area in one of the ladies' restrooms designated as the "lactation center" for new mothers.

Mr. Ussery, who credits longtime Synovus chairman and CEO James Blanchard for instilling much of this approach, said the team-oriented style is just good business practice. "A lot of it is aimed at nothing other than slowing down turnover," he said.


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