A high-level look at
company culture.

While it may feel like a newer trend sweeping Monday meetings, the words “company culture” have been thrown around since the 1980s. Culture, for some companies, is hard to define and even harder to enact. However, consciously or not, it is interwoven into each square of a company’s quilt. Culture impacts productivity, retention, company perspective, and overall morale, making it something to be intentional, not ignored. Hopefully, it’s no surprise to read that the dusty breakroom ping pong table just isn’t cutting it anymore.


Brandi Spurling, founder of Sage Culture Co., a Mid-Missouri-based organization that provides people-first training for leaders and teams, defines culture as the intersection of a human-centric mission supported by systems and processes and the people’s buy-in to make it happen. 

“A really good culture comes whenever we put people at the center of it,” Brandi says. “People and leaders buy into a mission that defines people as its center focus.”

A local company widely praised for its company culture is Veterans United. Veterans United is the number one veteran affairs lender in the country. Until 2021, the company experienced massive growth in employees, sometimes doubling over a calendar year. Today, there are about 4,162 employees nationwide, which incorporates their sister companies Veteran United Home Loans, Veterans United Realty, and Veterans United Insurance. Roughly 70 employees work at the Veterans United Insurance office in Jefferson City. 

In recent years, Veterans United has earned numerous culture-related accolades — including a 29th spot on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For 2023 and a number two spot on People’s Companies That Care in 2022. Additionally, Glassdoor, one of the world’s largest job and recruiting sites where employees anonymously review companies, ranked Veterans United number 53 on its list of Best Places to Work 2023. 

Guided by their values, “be passionate and have fun” and “deliver results with integrity and enhance lives every day,” Veterans United has gained its reputation by treating its employees with a culture of love and care. From the beginning, Veterans United’s founders, brothers Brock and Brant Bukowsky, intentionally built their company’s culture to create a place where they would want to work. Ian Franz, director of culture at Veterans United, describes Veterans United’s culture as a lifestyle. 

“We have values that largely steer what our culture looks like,” Ian says. “It may look different from this group to that group, but we’re still prescribing the same ones. I think that’s pretty important for a place to feel cohesive and run in the same direction.”

When speaking to Sage Culture Co. clients, Brandi uses a cake analogy to help envision culture. Gym passes, beer taps at the office, flashy events, and gifts are the icing on the cake. But, the actual cake, or culture, is the people and how they feel valued in their jobs. 

“People like icing; it’s enjoyable. But, people aren’t going to eat icing alone,” Brandi says. 

“A really good culture comes whenever we put people at the center of it. People and leaders
buy into a mission that defines people as its center focus.”

Brandi Spurling, founder of Sage Culture Co.

Ian also shares that swag and other perks are great and can give a morale boost, but the heart of Veterans United’s culture is in the way employees treat each other and the collective attitude of the entire company. 

“Someone described once at a meeting that ‘culture is what happens when two or more people are together,’” Ian says. “Culture is the output of that interaction. It includes how we spend our time and how we talk to each other …. you can have good and bad cultures and everything in between, but I think it’s really hard to have a culture with just one person.” 

Kellen Brondel, a team lead at Veterans United Insurance in Jefferson City, has been with the company for over five years. Although Kellen had never envisioned himself working in the insurance or mortgage industry, it’s the people and the culture that make him excited about going to work every day.

“I don’t exactly go home at night and read insurance books to fall asleep to,” Kellen says. “The culture, sense of belonging, and getting to have a piece of ownership in this massive cause that we have, which is to help veterans and to help people get into homes, that’s what keeps me coming back every single day.”  


A February 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that of the workers who quit their jobs, 57% stated feeling disrespected at work and 63% stated that lack of advancement opportunities was why they left.

Resignations can become quite costly for companies. Research from The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests that replacement costs for an employee can be as high as 50% to 60% of that employee’s salary with overall costs ranging up to 200%. If an employee makes a $60,000 salary, it may cost an average of $30,000 – $45,000 just to replace that employee and roughly $54,000 – $120,000 in overall losses to the company.

When an employee exits, they leave more than an empty desk. Losing good people means losing innovators, motivators, and problem-solvers. Internally, it may damage team morale. Externally, departures can impact customer relationships or even a company’s brand.  

Hiring the right people in the first place means attracting the right people. Employees’ expectations and requirements from their employers have evolved over the past decade, even from the past couple of years. Skilled candidates are settling less as they prioritize their quality of life. Interviews are a two-way street, and employees are looking for companies like Veterans United where they are a complete person instead of a number.

“This is how consumers are spending their money now, too,” Brandi says. “Social media has made it where we can really quickly see the culture of an organization, either the people buying and reviewing it or the people who are working there. The way that I think of it is that Google is known to have a really good working culture. How do we know that? Most of us here in Missouri don’t know people who work at Google. We just know it because their culture spans past the office.” 

At Veterans United, culture starts from the first time a potential employee talks to a hiring manager. Ian’s team directly collaborates on the hiring and onboarding processes. In Ian’s experience, employees have shared that they could feel Veterans United’s culture from the first phone call. 

‘I think, how do I want my candidate to feel from the very beginning?” Ian says. “The first interaction matters because culture starts then, and it will carry on through the final days that they’re with you. I have to think how I (as a manager) show up during the recruitment and interviewing. The whole process matters.” 

Ian explains that culture starts from an employee’s first interaction with a company and stresses the importance of mediating how a company wants a candidate to feel from the beginning because that feeling will carry through an employee’s final days. 

After being hired, new Veterans United employees integrate into the company during a new hire orientation. However, this day is not about reading a handbook, it’s about fun. The day’s primary goal is to introduce new employees to a different type of company. Throughout an employee’s first year, they have numerous check-ins from the onboarding team, including surveys for feedback on how to improve the process. Those responses are taken seriously and put into action. 

Past the first year, Brandi stresses the importance of development opportunities, especially for high-performing individuals who are interested in advancing their careers in areas other than management. To create a human-centric culture, employees need to be shown their value past their title and their pay. People may want to grow in their professional skills or their personal lives through leading projects, professional development, or investing in hobbies. 


Big initiatives are great, but it’s the everyday interactions on a team level that make or break a culture. According to Gallup, managers or team leaders account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. 

“A person can love what we’re putting out as a company and just dread their individual team,” Ian says. “We talk a lot with managers that it is on you to care for your team and employees. That care is going to look different based on their gifts and their skillset and even the people they’re caring for.”

When it comes to finding good managers, tenure and hard skills are not always what will land someone the position. Veterans United tries to ensure people in leadership roles can fulfill their mission of love and care. 

“We’re looking for humility, someone who can admit that they don’t have all the answers and that they are wrong sometimes. We are looking for someone who can put people first,” Ian says.

Leadership is about having a love for people, acting in their best interest, and treating them as whole humans, not just someone cranking out numbers. The hope is that what naturally follows is respect. Ian admits that sometimes they don’t place the right people in management positions, which has consequences, but the intention of love and care is always there.

One of the roadblocks to this loving support is that leaders are also producers, and Brandi stresses the importance for middle management to possess the space and time to care for their teams. This requires support from upper management for training or taking items off team leaders’ plates. As a leader at Veterans United, Kellen has always felt empowered to care for his team. 

“It was like a match was lit in front of me, and I just followed the light,” Kellen says. “It sounds kind of cliché, but that top-down feeling of knowing culture is one of the most important pieces of our business gave me, and the rest of the leaders here at VUI, more of a freedom and trust to do what they feel is right when the appropriate time comes up.”

“For me, I get to come into work every single day and bring everything that I am to the table because I know that there’s a lot of trust there, and I know that my opinions, whether right or wrong, are accepted and navigated through,” he adds. “Before coming here, I didn’t necessarily not have that; there wasn’t this feeling of ‘we want people to be their real selves.’” 

Ian’s team sees communication between high-up leaders and employees as vitally important.

As the company grew, communication needed to become even more intentional. Multiple times a year, video messages from Veterans United’s CEO, Nate Long, will circulate inboxes. Veterans United’s founders and C-suite executives will often meet with 20 to 30 employees to discuss what’s happening at a department level. This tactic has proven to be instrumental in figuring out what the real issues are that may become lost from one group to the next and even more critical during more challenging times.

“I don’t think people work just to work. I think people work because they’re looking for some sort of purpose. Hopefully, that purpose can somehow be fulfilled while they’re working…”

Ian Franz, director of culture at Veterans United

Brandi shares that, too often, the only time employees hear from leaders is when people do things wrong. A leader needs emotional intelligence to motivate and gather around a team, to develop people, and to key into people’s strengths and weaknesses.

“Having conversations with leaders, spending time with them, and seeing them as real people is so helpful for building trust. It’s one of the most valuable things that we do, I think. People need to know that the person who is making decisions over their jobs and over their futures actually cares about them as a person, and I think quality time is one of the ways you can do that,” Ian says. 

Kellen shares that one of his favorite ways to experience quality time with co-workers is during small groups, an initiative spearheaded by Veterans United’s founders to build connections across the company. He describes these as small groups like clubs in high school. There are over 500 small groups throughout the country led by employees covering every subject imaginable: K-Pop, professional development, running, and Harry Potter, to name only a few. Team leaders are especially encouraged to lead small groups. Employees are encouraged to participate to the point that a small group paid time off (PTO) exists. Providing PTO to participants relieves any tension or guilt an employee may have about participating. Through the program, employees connect in a more meaningful way and with people they may have not otherwise interacted with, providing an opportunity to build empathy and respect across departments. It’s a time investment that can pay off big. 

“It’s been a huge benefit to me and, I think, the entire company because it allows people to feed into some of the things that bring them joy and share those things with others,” Kellen says.


If office culture has gone sour, luckily, there is no need to fret. Like most things in life, repairs are possible. Trust is often at the core of the issues for companies or teams. Ian suggests starting repairs by listening to employees about what may be wrong and then having the guts to make changes. 

“I don’t think people work just to work. I think people work because they’re looking for some sort of purpose,” Ian says. “Hopefully, that purpose can somehow be fulfilled while they’re working; like somehow my job plays into my bigger purpose for existing on this planet, so I think making room for that is important. They’re not just collecting a paycheck when they come to work. They’re doing something that impacts other human beings. I think that’s what people like.”

Little gestures add up to a lot. Employees are more than their function; they’re people. And people want to know they are cared for and seen, especially by their leaders. 

Managers can make employees feel like they are loved and cared for, not because they’re a high performer or for doing something great for the company, but because they deserve it. Employees can come to work and receive that gift.


  • Competitive Compensation: Paying employees a fair wage and offering robust compensation plans including benefits, such as a generous retirement contribution, helps employees feel valued.
  • Foster Communication: Listening and then enacting change from employee feedback will not only build trust, but encourage future communication.
  • Build Authentic Relationships: Having some genuine interest in an employee’s life outside of the office. A fun, out-of-office excursion can help employees feel relaxed and build
    relationships more naturally.
  • Promote Personal Growth: Whether in or out of the office, most people want to grow and better themselves. Investing in empowering employees in their current goals prepares them for future goals.