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Some global companies embrace World Cup as morale booster

| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 10:57 p.m.
Photo illustration by E. Denise Shean | Tribune-Review

At high noon on Thursday, James Funk is going to put work aside for a couple hours to settle a bet.

That is when the U.S. men's soccer team plays Germany in the World Cup. Funk, who works in the Pittsburgh office for Germany-based Hydro­technik, is wagering his counterparts overseas that the Yanks will pull out an improbable victory.

“We made the wager the first week in June,” said Funk, general manager of Hydrotechnik's sales office in Sewickley. “We were talking about how we were going to play each other, and we decided to make a friendly bet that the losing office would wear the winning country's shirt and pose for some pictures.”

The match on Thursday will be of intense interest for soccer fans in both countries, as it could determine whether either team advances in the world's largest sporting tournament. For the 73 German-owned companies in Pittsburgh, it means even more: two hours when employees on both sides of the Atlantic will be too distracted to work.

The World Cup is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world and is becoming more popular in the United States. Nearly 25 million Americans watched Sunday's match against Portugal, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history.

The last World Cup tournament cost U.S. companies $121.7 million in lost productivity, according to global marketing consultant InsideView, though such estimates are problematic because they don't account for employees making up the time by shifting their hours.

Production is certain to slow at some firms during the game, but employers would be smart to embrace it as an investment in workforce culture, said John Challenger, CEO of the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“You are losing productivity, but workforces today are so scattered,” Challenger said. “They don't know each other like they used to when people worked together for a long time. ... If you can find a way to help move those relationships beyond the transactional nature of a lot of them, then you gain.”

Employers that show the game on TV might avoid widespread computer crashes if too many workers stream the game online, he said.

Bayer AG is one German company that has embraced the World Cup.

The noon match will be shown throughout the 14-building campus of the company's North American MaterialScience division in Robinson, spokesman Bob Walker said.

The company, which has 110,000 employees worldwide and 2,200 in Pittsburgh, has employee World Cup contests — predicting the number of yellow cards in the tournament or goals scored — and will award prizes to the winners.

In some ways, World Cup fits well with Bayer's business. Its products were used to make this year's World Cup ball, and the company has its own professional soccer team in Germany.

But the tournament offers a unique opportunity to connect its global workforce, Walker said.

“If you look at trying to unite all of our employees in different cultures, different countries, that's a challenge in and of itself,” he said. “We found a common denominator that spurs interest from all of our employees.”

Non-German firms are celebrating World Cup, too. Continuum Managed IT Services in Cranberry has set up a live stream of the game and is providing pizza and drinks for employees.

Not every company can be so flexible.

Veka, a German manufacturer of vinyl window profiles with a plant in Fombell, could not afford to shut down to watch the game, said CEO Joe Peilert. Its production lines operate around the clock. Two hours of downtime would cost Veka several hundred thousand dollars, he said.

“It's simply because we're a manufacturing operation and we're 24/7,” Peilert said.

Peilert is no less interested in the game. A German native who became a U.S. citizen after 9/11, Peilert has a scarf that is half German colors, half U.S., from a soccer match between the two nations in 2006.

Though divided in his loyalties, he leans toward Deutschland.

“Having grown up in Germany, my heart bleeds for Germany,” he said.

Funk is not so conflicted. Despite the United States being a heavy underdog, he will root for the Americans no matter the hard feelings it may cause at Hydrotechnik headquarters.

“We're the U.S., so we've always got a chance,” he said. “Even if it's not a very good one.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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