When John Ratliff graduated from Unionville High School in 1988, he had high aspirations of making it big in the business world. Four years later, he earned a degree in marketing and finance from the University of Delaware and a year later, started his own business.Little did he know how hard it would

John Ratliff be to start a business.

At age 22, he started a cellular store in Media, and added a second in Paoli. And in 1995, he started Appletree Answering Service with the money he made from the sale of his two cellular stores.

With no employees, he rented a small two-bedroom unit in a commercially zoned area and had just three phone lines. His first customer wasn't even a paying one - he bartered with a local limo company.

'It was awful," Ratliff said. "I was working 100 hours a week. I was sleep deprived. I remember one time I worked the entire weekend and got just two hours of sleep. I was killing myself."

After that weekend, Ratliff was ready to throw up his hands and walk out, but his competitive nature got the best of him and he decided to stick it out. "I wanted to see this thing to the end, either I was going to make it or I was going to fail, but I wasn't going to quit," he said.

After two years, the business took off. Ratliff got rid of his aging equipment and invested in new technology. By 2002, Apple tree was grossing $1 million in revenue. And in 2003, he opened an office in Florida that added another $500,000 to the bottom line. He made it to the big time.

Or so he thought.

With more than 300 employees and more than 200 call center agents, Ratlifff was losing a lot of money due to a 90 percent turnover rate. Employees would get trained, and leave shortly after. It was costing him in excess of $1 million a year.

"I knew I had to do something," Ratliff said. "I had to find a way to drive up employee retention."

So last year, he started a concept called "Dream On," and the company experienced the lowest employee turnover rate in its history. Dream On is a program that grants wishes for Appletree employees, no matter how extreme. Employees submit wishes but not all are granted. It gives them a chance to "dream."

One employee in the Puerto Rico office submitted a wish to visit her mom in Orlando over Christmas. The employee couldn't afford the cost of the trip and her mother was in failing health. Her wish was granted, all expenses paid.

And two recently married employees were granted an all-expenses paid honeymoon to the Caribbean for three nights and four days.

"Employees were skeptical at first," Ratliff said. "I could take my family on a killer vacation, or I could help my employees. I chose to help my employees.

Ratliff said his success in the business world has been perseverance and to treat employees something well. "You need to over focus on the people who do well for you and your business," he said. We took our turnover rate from 90 percent to 25 percent, and volunteer turnover is just 5 percent. Employees here know they have a company that cares about them."

That concept has put his company in a very nice financial place. Appletree Answering Service was recognized by Inc. Magazing as one of the country's fastest growing privately held businesses. And the company was inducted into the Philadelphia 100 Hall of Fame by earning the award as one of the fastestgrowing businesses for five straight years.

Today, at age 36, Ratliff admits he rarely works more than 25 hours per week and spends a lot time with his family. He and his wife have three children, Reece, 6, McKenzie, 4, and Branden, 6 months.

And his giving doesn't end with his company. He donates 2 percent of his gross profits per year to charities his employees support.

"It's just a great way to build culture in your business," he said.

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