With more and more people leaving their jobs to join “the Great Resignation,” countless small business owners find themselves questioning whether they can do anything to prevent their employees from doing the same. Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “yes.” In this episode, Jon Aidukonis and Gene Marks, along with Chelsey Paulson, Chief Strategy Officer of Keystone Group International, discuss how small business owners can utilize cultural strategies to not only retain their current employees, but also recruit new talent.

Podcast Key Highlights

  • The Defining Elements of Your Small Business’s Culture
    • Leaders lay the foundation for a business’s culture since every decision they make can have a tremendous impact on their employees.
    • Purpose is another pivotal component of your small business’s culture because it establishes both you and your staff’s mutual goals.
    • Your business culture is also defined by its values and how it strives to serve its clients.
    • Lastly, communication plays an important role in your business’s culture since it determines how you and your employees interact with each other.
  • Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Talent
    • As the owner of a small business, you need to honestly evaluate your leadership skills and try to fill in any potential gaps, so that you can be someone who your staff respects.
    • Asking your employees for their input on important business matters gives them an opportunity to utilize their skills and makes them feel valued.
    • You should actively be seeking out potential employees who can help grow and contribute to your small business’s culture rather than someone who merely fits a specific mold.
  • Qualities to Look for in a Potential Employee
    • Resiliency
    • Growth mindset
  • The Benefits of Offering an ESOP (Employees Stock Ownership
    • ESOPs are one way for small business owners to show that they deeply believe in their employees.
    • ESOPs serve as a great succession plan since anyone who’s considering taking over the business will already have a significant investment in it.
    • Because of the level of transparency you’ll need to maintain with your employees, having an ESOP ensures that your staff has a deeper understanding of your financial operations.
  • The Disadvantages of Offering an ESOP
    • ESOPs can be more expensive due to yearly valuations.
    • There are tax filings associated with ESOPs and if an
      employee resigns, you are required to buy out their shares.



The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.

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Jon: Hello, everyone. And welcome back to another episode of Small Biz Ahead, the small business podcast presented by The Hartford. This is Jon Aidukonis, and I am joined by my co-host Gene Marks. Gene, how are you doing?

Gene: Jon, not that great actually. I rolled my ankle playing squash the other day and people can’t see me, but I’ve got an ankle brace, which I’m going to put on as you guys are talking. It blew up like the size of a baseball. But I didn’t break anything. But anyway, no, not that great. I’m getting better, but not that great. Let’s leave it at that. You have your conversation with Chelsey.

Jon: Well, we’re here to focus on the future, I guess. We are joined today by Chelsey Paulson. Chelsey is with a company called Keystone Group International. She is the chief strategy officer there, and she’s here today to talk to us a little bit about how to think of a cultural strategy so you can retain talent during the great resignation. So Chelsey, how are you?

Chelsey: I am doing better than Gene, I guess. I have no injuries to complain about. So I’m doing well.

Gene: Yeah. Just be careful out there, Chelsey, all right?

Chelsey: I will.

Gene: Remember the squash and the skiing.

Jon: Chelsey, and you’re based in Minnesota?

Chelsey: I am, yes.

Jon: Yeah. So you’re having a good week. Twins have had a good weekend?

Chelsey: Yeah. Twins. We got wild hockey that’s doing well. We’re not anticipating the football season coming up, but we’re doing okay right now. Timberwolves are doing well. So we’ve had some successes as of late.

Jon: There you go. Actually, I was able to catch the Red Sox and Twins came yesterday. And disappointing for a New Englander, but good if you are from the Minnesota side there. Awesome. Well, Chelsey, thanks so much for joining us. I’m excited to get into the conversation. So as you know and as all of our listeners and everyone probably in the world, the great resignation, I feel like is a new buzzword that is not going away.

Jon: A lot of conversation about, I think, what the future of work looks like, what expectations are from employees, what employers should do kind of under this lens of how COVID, I think, has impacted and probably safe to say accelerated a lot of things we’ve seen going on as managers of people and builders of businesses for a while.

Jon: So really keen on getting a little bit of your insight there. But maybe to start off, we can just talk a little bit about who you are and your background and what you guys do over at Keystone.

Chelsey: Sounds good. So my background is in human resources. So I have 15 years of HR experience. There was a lot of things I loved about HR and there was a lot of things I didn’t love about HR. What I did love was a cultural aspect, the leadership development aspect, connecting with people throughout the organization and helping them understand what it was that they wanted to be when they grew up and then helping them get there.

Chelsey: The other thing about my organization is that we were an employee-owned organization. So we had an awesome culture, and I got to really help enhance that and kind of drive that feeling in the organization. So I did that for many years. Loved it. Loved my company, but then just realized that there’s more that I wanted to be doing and more of an impact I felt like I could have around leadership and around culture.

Chelsey: And so I found Keystone Group a few years ago. And the whole focus at Keystone is really the intersection of human needs and business needs. And so what we do is we play right at the intersection of those and we really help leaders think about how do we think? How do we act? How do we interact in new ways so that we can scale our businesses in a way that’s fun, that’s engaging, where people want to show up to work.

Chelsey: They want to be here. And so it’s really focused on growth and scaling businesses, but in the right way. That’s focused on both what people need and what the business needs. And we feel that when you combine those two, that’s when you kind of see that rocket ship take off and, again, you have more fun while doing it. And growth doesn’t have to be painful.

Jon: Awesome. And I like how you articulate that too, especially kind of the notion of a cultural strategy because I think so often you hear people talk about culture as a piece of an HR strategy or a business strategy when kind of everything else is tied to the culture. So in my mind, everything else is a piece of that.

Jon: So interesting to see that people are starting to, I think, come around that a little bit. It feels like kind of the marketing renaissance of 10 years ago, where what does it mean to be a customer focused marketer? And what do people really want to hear? And how can you kind of add value back to their lives?

Chelsey: Absolutely. And I mean, people run our businesses. If we didn’t have people, we would be able to run our business. People are a part of your culture. So culture is everything. And I think we talked about COVID and that’s kind of done over the last couple of years. And what I feel it’s done is it’s revealed everything. There’s no hiding anymore of what’s working and what’s not working.

Chelsey: What’s not working is out for everyone in the open right now. And it’s actually accelerated our business because people are saying, oh, culture is important. We thought we had a good culture, but now over COVID, we realize we don’t. It’s like, well, no, actually your culture wasn’t that great before COVID. COVID just revealed it and made it become of a lot more apparent to every person and every leader in the company.

Jon: So maybe we go there because I think a lot of times, people think about culture or cultural perks as workplace perks like the beer fountains, the kombucha on tap, ping pong breaks, nap pods. I don’t know that was ever fully the right answer, but I think more so when we talk about now a more distributed workforce or workforce that’s virtual, you kind of have to think culture outside of your four walls.

Jon: So how do you start to kind of articulate that to clients and to employers? Or how should they start to think about it? Or where do you even start to define a culture when it’s in such a new form?

Chelsey: Fun is a piece of culture, right? The kombucha on tap, which I didn’t know people did that. I love kombucha. I might try to get that here. But the ping pong tables, and the baseball games, and the barbecues, that’s one element of culture. And so what we’ve done and we did this long before COVID is we really narrowed it down to what is culture. And so we created a model of 20 different building blocks that we feel make up culture.

Chelsey: And so it’s really looking at those different elements. And your foundational element is just like a house. You have to build a house on a strong foundation. You have to build your culture on a strong foundation. And so it’s things like your leaders. Having conscious leaders who understand what it is that they bring to the table, that understand how they think, act, and interact, how it impacts everyone around them.

Chelsey: How they need to be thinking about how they’re attracting and retaining their own people. So it starts with that. But then the organization has to know, what is our purpose? Why do we exist? And then are we communicating that with people? We have to think about what are our values and are we actually living and using our values or are they just plastered up on a wall somewhere?

Chelsey: Communication. That’s the number one issue that we see when we do cultural assessments with organizations. Communication is the number one issue that we see. And so we don’t always think about all these different elements as part of the culture, but it’s a big blanket with all the different pieces that need to be woven together.

Chelsey: And it takes time and energy to figure out where are we at with our culture. Where are we strong? Where are we weak? And then really figuring out where you’re weakest, and how do we level that up? And make sure that our leaders are a part of that and that we’re leveling up our leaders to help support our culture because they’re the ones that are driving the culture.

Jon: So say we’ve kind of figured that part out and we have a good brand purpose, we understand kind of what it is we do and who we serve. In today’s world, and especially kind of thinking about how we react to the trends of… I don’t know. I’m not a huge fan of the phrase, the great resignation.

Jon: It feels like the great musical chair game, because people are going somewhere else. How do you make yourself a desirable see? How are the people who are doing it right kind of showing up to potential talent pools, or how are they preventing people from wanting to look elsewhere?

Chelsey: You’re right, we don’t like using that term, the great designation either. It’s about the great attraction, the great retention, right? What are we doing to help support the people that are with our organization? And what are we doing to attract them? And so some of the things that we’re seeing our clients do is, I kind of alluded to this, but starting with the leaders and making sure that we’re assessing our leader gaps so that we can help fulfill those and level up our leaders.

Chelsey: Leaders really leaning into their employees and asking them the questions, right? Not feeling like we have to have all of the answers for everything, because we don’t. But using our employees as a knowledge base and as a resource to help solve issues. And especially our top performers, when they feel like they’re able to add value, they’re able to lean into their purpose and use their skills more, they’re going to want to stick with the organization.

Chelsey: And so it’s really more about creating that team atmosphere, building relationships, helping people feel like they belong. There’s this whole movement around DE&I as well. And I think that’s great. But at the core of that is belonging. And do they feel like they belong in the organization? And so those are some of the things that we’ve seen a lot of organizations focusing on along with my background, again, as HR.

Chelsey: It’s really thinking through that HR is a team effort, right? When you’re trying to recruit, that’s not just the HR department or the HR leader who owns that. Everyone in the company owns that, and especially the leaders. So helping to really support our leaders in a way so that they can be the recruiters for the organization, give them the tools that they need to be successful with that.

Chelsey: Help them be active on LinkedIn and so forth so that they can be recruiters for the company too and not just have it fall all on HR, because there’s too much to be done. We used to get 100 resumes for one opening, and now maybe you’re going to get 10. So we need to be actively seeking out candidates rather than just sitting here, waiting for them to show up.

Chelsey: And the other thing I see clients doing is they’re not trying to find this unicorn that’s going to fit all of the qualifications and all the aspects that we think that they should fit. They’re looking more for people who can contribute to the culture, and then we can train them up with the skills that they need, which is very different than a cultural fit, right?

Chelsey: Cultural fit is you need to fit into exactly what we have laid out here. And what we’re talking about is let’s have someone who contributes and adds to our culture rather than has to fit into this specific mold.

Jon: It’s interesting, because we’ve had a lot of conversations about that, Gene, I feel like with other guests and just even probably in our own lives. And I’ve noticed a big shift to looking for the right, I guess, I would call them intrinsic values as opposed to kind of demonstrable skills when you’re kind of talking about talent. So if I was hiring someone to be on an advertising team, right, I don’t know that I’d expect you to have tons of media buying experience because depending where you are, that might not be the case.

Jon: But I’d want to really figure out like, are you intellectually curious? Can you think differently? What are those things in life that kind of show that you can break through because that’s what you’d be charged with, right? And it feels a little refreshing because it feels like people are finally starting to get past the experience into the things that make someone uniquely qualified or to your point, able to add value to a role that they historically might have kind of shrugged off.

Chelsey: Absolutely. And it’s a lot about resiliency when we’re looking for candidates. We want people who are resilient, who can learn new things, who have a growth mindset. It’s those things that are more valuable because if I come in and I’m motivated and I have a growth mindset, I want to learn, I want to grow, I’m going to figure it out.

Chelsey: And so when our company has to adjust what we’re doing or do something new, you’re going to have all of these employees who are able to adjust and change with that because change is hard for a lot of people. But if we are looking for candidates who that’s their nature, is to be resilient and to adapt to change, our organization may be able to succeed.

Chelsey: And, again, just go so much further based off of that than based off of a specific skill. Because we’ve seen technology skills, they get out of date within 18 months because technology is moving so fast. So to hire for specific skills just doesn’t always make sense anymore.

Gene: Can I just jump in? I’m curious, Chelsey, how do you figure that out? How do you judge? I mean, you can have anybody sitting across your own interview saying I’m motivated, I’m hardworking, I’m resilient., I’m going to be a great employee. How do you know they’re not just BSing you?

Gene: With the skills, you can make people go through a test. They can show you certifications. They can actually prove that in black and white. But to find that person that’s actually going to do what they say they’re going to do, what advice do you have for our audience to figure that out on their own?

Chelsey: Yeah. It’s the old behavioral type interviewing questions, right? Give me examples. Give me a time when you were resilient. Give me a time when you adapted easily to change. One of my favorite questions is just asking like, what did you learn or how did you grow during COVID? What we’ve seen is there’s kind of two types of people, the people who kind of just shrugged back and just kind of did their thing or there’s the others that leaned into it.

Chelsey: They had maybe extra time to learn new things, to read more books, to listen to more podcasts. So how did you spend your time during COVID? Were you the one who ramped up your exercise routine and ramped up your podcast listening. So where did you fall over COVID? And what did you learn? How did you grow? That’s a really great indication of, is this person adaptable to change or not?

Jon: I love the example question. And, Chelsey, our running joke is I have a restaurant analogy for every thing because that’s more my background. But I remember once when I was interviewing for a serving job and it was a competitive restaurant in New York City, and they wanted questions of when you went above and beyond for a guest, right?

Jon: And I remember mine was actually I worked at a place that didn’t believe in ranch dressing when it was like everybody wanted a side of ranch because we were in a tourist area, especially people from the south, that’s everything, right? So I went across the street to a Bodega and I bought a bottle of ranch because my most important thing was-

Gene: Wait.

Jon: I changed the menu.

Gene: They didn’t believe in ranch dressing? What kind place was this?

Jon: They didn’t believe in having ranch dressing. It was a popular place and they had very good food, very good service, but they also-

Gene: I’m not going there.

Jon: Yeah. So that was mine. I will always go the extra mile to get something done, right? That’s kind of what I try to pride myself on. But I think that’s good advice is look for the examples that might not be in the craft, but just as an example of give me a time in your life even when you’ve done this.

Chelsey: Exactly.

Jon: Or something really difficult to learn or what is your secret skill or talent? And I feel like that comes out naturally in conversation.

Chelsey: Yeah, absolutely.

Jon: Well, Gene, I know you have a lot of questions on kind of the employee-owned aspect of business. And Chelsey, you have a lot of experience there. And I know that’s a compelling topic for many. So maybe we can pivot there a little bit.

Gene: Yeah. So Chelsey, you’re talking about building the right kind of culture in your company. So I do a lot of writing and I wrote this big piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of months ago on ESOPs, Employees Stock Ownership Plans. I interviewed a dozen business owners. They were in the Philly area.

Gene: Every single person across the board were like, best decision we ever made to get an ESOP. So I want to talk to you about that because it is a company culture topic. So first of all, let me just ask you, you have experience with ESOPs. So just to sort of set the stage, what is your experience with ESOPs? Tell us that.

Chelsey: Sure. So the company I worked for prior to coming to Keystone, we were 100% employee-owned. And so as the HR leader of that organization, I helped with all of the administrative, reporting, census data. So I understand kind of the back end financial technical piece of ESOPs. But then from a cultural perspective, what we really talked about was the whole reason we became an ESOP is so that we could give back to our employees who are helping the organization grow.

Chelsey: And so we wanted to make sure that we had a culture that supported that. So that was my whole thing that I did while I was there. But then I got very involved in the ESOP association, which is an association for employee-owned organizations and then professionals who support employee-owned companies. And so program committee was on the officer group for the Minnesota Dakotas chapter.

Chelsey: I was the chapter president. I’m still on the officer group right now. And so I’ve been very, very ingrained in multiple different ways within the ESOP world. And I just believe in it so heavily that now that I’m at Keystone, we’re not an employee-owned company, but I wanted to help support employee-owned companies and they care about their cultures so deeply.

Chelsey: And that’s what we do. So it’s a really good pairing. So I still get to participate in the conferences. We just had a conference a few weeks ago. I stay very close and in touch with a lot of ESOP companies and other ESOP professionals.

Gene: Okay. And that really interests me. And so, again, we have small business owners that are listening to this, that they might own a company with five employees or 200 employees, right? So it’s a big range. Take a few minutes out and sell me on ESOPs. Why would a business owner want to do this?

Chelsey: So what I tend to see with ESOPs is that those who become an ESOP believe deeply in their people. They truly believe that their people are the reason why they got to where they’re at. Some owners will say that, but don’t really mean it. These are the owners who truly mean it. And so this is their way to give back, to think, to reward their employees for all the effort that they’ve done to help get them to this point and get the organization to this point.

Chelsey: And so that’s one reason. The other reason is it’s a really great succession plan because it can really hard to find someone who both wants to run and purchase your organization. And so this becomes a way where you don’t have to worry about who’s going to buy your company, you’re selling it to the ESOP. And so it will go on into perpetuity this way.

Chelsey: And then, I say that in quotes, “all” you need to do is find someone to run the company, not just buy the company. What I see generally within ESOPs is that, that is a succession plan that happens internally. And so they’re very good about planning for succession within the organization, leveling up their leaders so that they can promote from within and not have to hire from outside.

Chelsey: I have experience with hiring outside in the ESOP for higher level positions. I failed more than I succeeded with that. It’s a different feel and it’s a different culture and it’s a different mentality. And so it can be really hard to hire higher level leadership positions, VP, director type level, CEO especially to come in to an employee-owned company if they haven’t worked for them before.

Gene: That’s interesting. And I’ve talked about and written about some of the myths of ESOPs. But that’s an interesting drawback. I mean, I know that if you have an ESOP itself, like you mentioned, it’s a great succession plan, right? I mean, and a lot of business owners are getting older and looking for a buyer. And depending on where they’re located, it’s not as easy to do. There are some unbelievable tax benefits too, by the way, guys, if you’re listening to us.

Chelsey: Absolutely.

Gene: So you set up a separate entity, a bank finances it, your company gets a big deduction for it. The income of the ESOP is not taxed. I mean, it’s a really great deal. And also your employees as well. Now, your employees don’t have to own 100% of your company, right? I mean, you could sell 20% of your company if you want to, right?

Chelsey: Yeah. And a lot of companies do that, especially highly profitable like banks, they’ll only do a percentage. They won’t go 50% even or even 30%. It can be a very small percentage depending on how your business is set up. But what we see happen with that is that people then feel this sense of ownership. And so they were working their butts off before, but now they feel like they have more skin in the game. And so they want to work harder. They want to be more efficient, more productive with their time because they know that they’re going to get back what they put into it.

Chelsey: And so it’s a different mentality. And we help a lot of clients come up with, what are our core values? And a lot of my clients want to use ownership mentality, or accountability, or things like that, which is great. I just keep thinking about, if you were an ESOP, this is just second nature. This is what people do. So it’s a different way of thinking. There’s a lot that goes into it, but certainly worth considering if you’re looking for a succession plan.

Gene: Jon, you want to say something?

Jon: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting too, kind of your comment on the desire to work harder because I think about, especially for service reliant businesses, there’s probably a lot of things that you try as an owner or kind of founder or even general manager to kind of get staff to do that feels superfluous or extra that it’s the headache thing. And I wager, I don’t have any math or science to back this up.

Jon: Chelsey, you probably have a professional opinion on it. But those are the things that are probably more likely to kind of be adopted by people who feel like they have a skin in the game, right? So it’s that little extra differentiator where it feels like a pain request if you’re a staff member, but it feels like this is what makes me different if I’m a leader, right? So I do wonder if that just kind of helps the little edge to make you stand out.

Chelsey: Well, and you talk about issues with attracting and retaining employees. Talk about a retention tool and an attraction tool, right? The tenure in employee-owned companies is out of this world. My previous company, it was like 12, 13 years of average tenure in the organization. You just don’t see that anymore. And you look at a lot of these organizations that are employee-owned, that’s the norm is to have double digit retention numbers.

Gene: Also it’s such a narrative nowadays. I mean, you read all the time about employees at Google or Amazon or Microsoft or whatever that they have an issue while the company is doing this or they go public with this. And it’s just a chance that people want to have more of a say in the company that they’re working for, right? It’s not just a job, is it? So it is really a great thing. I don’t want to sugar coat this too much because there are downsides to having an ESOP.

Gene: You mentioned one that was really interesting that I’ve never heard of before, but it makes complete sense, and you’ve had experience with, is recruiting executives in saying, hey, we’re an employee-owned company. And executive is like, that’s not something that I… Because I guess, an executive comes in saying, I’m the boss. And I don’t want to be dealing with having employees weigh in on my decisions.

Gene: That is definitely an issue. Some other issues that I just wanted to ask you about, I know particularly some of my own clients, they would have an issue maybe sharing some of the information about their company. They’re a privately held company. How do you address that? Or what recommendations do you have other than just suck it up, dude, and do it?

Chelsey: Yeah. Well, a lot of organizations that are ESOPs follow the open book management philosophy. And so like at my previous company, for the longest time, we literally would show everyone the P&L statement. They could see every single line for our organization until we got the feedback of, I don’t look at P&Ls except for when you show them to me. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Chelsey: So we kind of simplified it and put some beautiful, colorful graphs together to give them the highlights. But there’s some ESOPs who don’t show a lot of information, but it’s what are the key drivers of your organization? Is it your sales metrics? Is there a percentage that you can give them? Is there an increase that you can show them year over year or month over month, quarter over quarter, whatever it might be.

Chelsey: The great game of business is a whole book in philosophy and conference and management style that is born with this whole idea of open book management. And the idea is that if people understand the financials, they can impact the financials. If they don’t understand how a client flows through the business, how cash flows through the business, they really don’t understand how they can impact it. And so we need to help them understand in some way, shape, or form how the business operates.

Gene: It gets back to culture. And you’re right. If I was running an organization that had an ESOP, I’d be all in. I’d be eating the dog food and drinking the Kool-Aid. And I think what I’d be doing is sharing my financials with my employees and educating them on the fact. So that even the person that’s packing boxes in the warehouse should know what role they’re playing in, where their costs filtered down to the P&L and how that impacts our overall profits and the value of their shares.

Gene: The only other downsides I can think, I mean, ESOPs just for you guys that are listening, I mean, they can be more expensive. I mean, you’ve got to get valuations every year. There are tax filings. If an employee leaves, I believe one of the deals, you got to buy out their shares.

Gene: So it has to be employee-owned. And so there’s a cash commitment involved to do that which, again, can be financed, but it’s something that has to be considered. So, Chelsey, I know we got to wrap this up in a minute, but you’re part of a statewide, you said ESOP organization in Minnesota. So there’s only like 14 people that live in Minnesota.

Chelsey: 15. Come on.

Gene: So the rest of the people in the country, any advice as to where they can go to get some education on ESOPs?

Chelsey: Yeah. So the ESOP Association is a national association with local chapters. Every state has a chapter. Some are combined like Minnesota Dakotas. So that is an excellent resource. The NCEO, the National Center for Employee Ownership is another resource online that you can go to, along with the Employee Ownership Network, EOX, is a whole association nonprofit that got started specifically to help businesses who are considering becoming an ESOP.

Chelsey: Think through that. The NCEO and the ESOP Association really are for companies who are already ESOPs, but there’s a lot of information still on there. But the EOX is another resource, if you’re contemplating becoming a ESOP.

Gene: Chelsey Paulson is the chief strategy officer at Keystone Group International. Chelsey, thank you very much for joining us. And, Jon, do you have anything else that you would like to add before we let Chelsey go?

Jon: The only thing that kind of sticks out, Chelsey, I really like the comment on kind of teaching people how the business makes money because I think especially as we’re all kind of thinking about talent strategies, there is this kind of innate focus that I think sometimes gets overlooked on the ability to train people, especially if you’re kind of looking at that value based or kind of internal skillset, right?

Jon: So the more you’re looking for someone’s ability to do the job, I think sometimes you have to be able to teach them the craft and specifically the business so they can kind of bring their best thinking to your actual business challenge. So I think that was a really important point just to kind of highlight. But I think it was a great conversation and really appreciate your perspective and just want to thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Gene: Hey, everybody, you’re listening to The Hartford’s Small Biz Ahead podcast. My name is Gene Marks and along with Jon Aidukonis, we want to say a big thank you. If you need any tips or advice or help in running your business, please visit us at smallbizahead.com or sba.thehartford.com. Thanks for joining us and we will see you again next time. Take care.

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