Best Places to Work

Ten businesses that go above and beyond the standard cubicle culture

We know what you’re thinking: After two years spinning in an economic crisis, with national unemployment rates teeter-tottering toward ten percent, every workplace is a veritable playground. Any job is a good job. Every company is a Best Place to Work.

The reality is, apathy toward employee satisfaction is as dangerous today as ever before. If you are an employee just going through the motions, if you are an employer who thinks your staff should just be happy they’re not laid off, take note: These ten Madison-area businesses remain committed to creating exceptional workplaces, and—despite these unarguably challenging times—it’s an effort that’s shining through in their bottom lines.

“Everybody says, ‘Employees are our most valuable resource,’ but they don’t treat them that way,” says Moses Altsech, marketing department chair at the Edgewood College MBA program and CEO of CallMoses.com, a Madison-based private consulting firm. “You need to think of your employees or coworkers as internal customers. Then, just like your goal is customer satisfaction for external customers, your goal becomes customer satisfaction for internal customers, too.”

 

It’s a tall order, but those who are doing it right clearly try to reach its heights. Whether it’s HospiceCare Inc. with 348 employees, or the seven-member-strong Community Shares [pictured above], staff members at all levels are just as valuable, just as nurtured, as each company’s customer base itself.

And it can’t be faked. The Madison Magazine Best Places to Work project is not a cherry-picked popularity contest; it’s an intensive study conducted by third-party Madison-based employee engagement research firm Next Generation Consulting, compiled from more than twenty-five thousand records from across North America.

The anonymous, forty-question survey had to be completed by at least fifty percent of a company’s employees and sought to measure performance in six key indicators: trust, management, development, connections, rewards and life-work balance. The 2010 survey was updated to weight trust, management and survey participation together into a seventh indicator, and it also separately ranked companies with fewer than and greater than 100 employees. Next Generation experts consider any overall average score over eighty percent exceptional; the lowest any of our ten winners received was a remarkable 87.9 percent.

According to Altsech, a consistently applied, anonymous measure of employee satisfaction like this is one of the bedrocks of a solid best place to work—and indeed, nearly every one of our winners already implements a similar survey on an annual basis. The key, says Altsech, is to act on the results.

“A best place to work is not born that way, it’s built that way,” says Altsech. “You can transform any organization into a best place to work.”

***

Community Shares moved to a new building in 2003 with more efficient work spaces, more lighting and better aesthetics, directly in response to feedback on their own biannual employee satisfaction survey. Executive director Crystel Anders regularly seeks input from staff and works hard to foster a spirit of cooperation and inclusiveness.

“Obviously the buck stops with me,” she says, “but I try to engage everybody to think creatively and move forward collaboratively.”
Anders also walks the talk when it comes to work-life balance, and makes sure to model it by sticking to forty- to forty-five-hour workweeks and taking time off when she needs it.

 

“I think leaders often say they want you to have work-life balance,” says Anders, “but then they work sixty hours a week themselves.” This type of leadership style breeds trust, a key measure of employee engagement also bolstered by transparency and communication. The Creative Company [pictured above] holds weekly meetings to communicate every aspect of the business, and president Laura Gallagher took a forty percent pay cut, modeling sacrifice to survive the current economy (“They saw their leader in the trenches, too,” she says.) Shauna Breneman of Big Wild Communications stresses an “atmosphere of candidness,” and at M3 Insurance employees “appreciate the ability to talk to the president of the company candidly.”

 

Development is also key to any good organization, but training must go far beyond technical skills. CG Schmidt [pictured above], a construction management and general contracting firm, schools its employees around its core values, with the hope they will feel empowered to make critical decisions with those values in mind—which, as senior VP and twenty-year employee Dan Davis puts it, eliminates ethical gray areas. “You can make a mistake, as long as your motivation is that you’re doing the right thing for the client,” says Davis. “It’s clear what the company’s values are, and we’re trained to just do the right thing and the company will back you up.”

Similarly values-driven, HospiceCare Inc. requires intensive orientation, where “employees go through more classroom training and shadowing than any other local health care workers,” says communications director Dan Chin, and then encourages frank sharing in meetings that double as support groups and training opportunities.

Personal bankers at Wells Fargo receive four weeks of off-site training (and tellers receive two) before they ever have any customer contact. “And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the ongoing coaching, training and development we do,” says Benjamin Udell, VP and district manager for south-central Wisconsin.

 

At Door Creek Dental [pictured above], work-life balance is a priority. Office manager Jill Korfmacher is also a registered hygienist, assistant and front desk person—a strategic training decision implemented so she can fill in whenever another staffer needs time off. “This has made each employee more conscious,” says Korfmacher, adding that her bosses set the tone by putting personal needs first, and empowering staff to treat patients and each other as family members. “We look at the office needs before our own because we feel very fortunate to work for such great people.”

Connection to the community and feeling a part of something bigger than a paycheck are qualities in abundance among this year’s winners. CG Schmidt bestows its financial Ovation Award twice a year for small to mid-sized, lesser-known nonprofit businesses within the community. M3 Insurance’s giving policy strictly states it will focus funding on the local communities surrounding its offices. Big Wild Communications is an ardent supporter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma society (in large part due to co-owner Joan Gunderson’s breast cancer survivorship), EZ Office Products values breast cancer research and environmental concerns. And, of course, Community Shares was founded entirely on building social and economic equity and making it sustainable for everybody who lives here.

 

Maintaining competitive pay and benefits was an obvious challenge in 2009, and though many of our winners were forced to make sacrifices, they did so with transparency, thoughtfulness and in many cases creativity. In an effort to continue to provide quality service during the current economic crisis, UW Credit Union [pictured above] issued a temporary downward adjustment in employee benefits—this sacrifice applied to everyone, right on up to the CEO.

“Our message was that this is a tough time for the community and our members,” says Lee Wiersma, executive VP and chief human resources officer, “so let’s make it our finest hour in service to them.” It worked, and UW Credit Union not only experienced an eleven percent membership growth for 2009, its employees voted it a Best Place to Work.

Community Shares offers a “green benefit” to all staff, an annual stipend for Madison Metro or Community Car. UW Credit Union has reward measures in place, but nothing that pits its employees against each other. M3 Insurance was also able to continue bonuses, merit increases, 401(K) matching and profit sharing, but the biggest emphasis was on recognizing employees publicly. They bestow $500 awards quarterly to selected employees, who are also touted in interal newsletters and meetings. Managers are authorized to hand out $50 spot bonuses for staff appreciation, and in January “Props Month” focused on “props certificates” written by employees to one other. “Halfway through Props Month over 200 certificates were recorded,” says Jennifer Genske, human resources generalist, “which displays a strong commitment to acknowledging and appreciating each other.”

“A lot of what makes an organization a Best Place to Work comes down to tangibly expressing to employees just how valued they are in the organization,” says Altsech. “Sometimes the mentality is, look, these are tough times and I give you a paycheck, should I give you a medal, too? But a pat on the back goes a long way. Sometimes people are happier making a little less money, doing a little less work, when they feel truly appreciated and valued.”

Is it expensive to invest in your staff in this way, especially now? Sure, a little. But according to Altsech, it’s far more expensive not to—and the time is now.

“Right now people are staying put because they’re a little afraid, but soon the economic crisis will be gone and people will start skipping around from job to job again,” says Altsech. “Now is the perfect time, a perfect and rare opportunity, to create the kind of culture that, by the time everybody who works for you now has three job offers on the table from somewhere else, they’re not interested because they love the company they work for. This crisis should not be the excuse to wait, it should actually be the reason to act.”

Greater than 100 employees:

1. HospiceCare Inc.

Number of employees: 348
Years in business: 32
Fun fact: #1 Madison Magazine Best Places to Work winner two surveys in a row, and the third largest nonprofit hospice in the Midwest.

• Many locals may not realize that HospiceCare Inc. is a national model in excellence, studied and emulated throughout the country. Its exceptional model of care extends beyond the patients to the patients’ families, HospiceCare employees and the employees’ families; they also work hard lobbying the government for the hospice cause. “Just as HospiceCare considers its patients and their families a mission and a calling,” says Altsech, “it realizes that it cannot care for patients without employees who are cared for as well.”

2. CG Schmidt

Number of employees: 114
Years in business: 90 years
Fun fact: Fourth-generation family contractors of notable buildings such as the Milwaukee Art Museum and the upcoming Union South, CG Schmidt once repaired a roof on a school they built thirty years ago—at no charge.

• It’s easy to tell what CG Schmidt’s values are: Caring. No surprises. Integrity. Accountability. Innovation. Excellence. It’s easy to tell, because they’re listed everywhere—on the whiteboard in the conference room, on the note cards in employees’ wallets, on their business cards. But most of all, they personify them daily. “We’re a family-owned company,” says president and CEO Rick Schmidt, “and we consider all of our employees family.”

3. UW Credit Union

Number of employees: 350
Years in business: 79
Fun fact: Despite these challenging times, UW Credit Union experienced a record year in 2009 with 10,000 new memberships.

• According to UW Credit Union’s mission statement, “Humanity counts most.” Staff is able to treat customers according to this principle because they themselves are treated that way, too. VP Lee Wiersma says UW Credit Union attracts employees who share these values, noting, “If high-character individuals can have a career with an organization that helps them to be successful at what they feel passionate about, they are more likely to feel loyal to that organization.”

4. M3 Insurance

Number of employees: 175
Years in business: 42
Fun fact: From 2005–2009, M3 Insurance grew from two offices to six: five in Wisconsin and one in Denver, Colorado.

• Focused on “open leadership” and keeping employees informed with quarterly meetings with the president, M3 leaders regularly ask for staff feedback and implement changes. They’re very big on employee recognition—bestowing regular bonuses, encouraging staff to honor each other and touting staff accomplishments at meetings and throughout company literature.

5. Wells Fargo

Number of employees: 110
Years in business: Since 1852, nationally
Fun fact: They helped put together a $13,500 grant for the new Madison Children’s Museum in support of environmentally friendly education.

• Though it’s a large national chain, Wells Fargo works hard to operate like a local community bank. Employees are encouraged to go beyond writing checks to charity—they get out there and work directly with local causes such as Red Cross blood drives, Second Harvest Foodbank, Kids in the Rotunda, and various cancer walk-a-thons. “We may not be the financial services company in town with the largest checkbook, but every little bit helps,” says exec Benjamin Udell, “and increases the engagement of our team members.”

Fewer than 100 employees:

1. Community Shares

Number of employees: 7
Years in business: 39
Fun fact: Scoring an astonishing onehundred percent in five out of six indicators (with one hundred percent staff participation), this company has a seven-member staff—but a seventy-one-member board.

• “I think the beauty of Madison is people here really do understand social change,” says executive director Crystel Anders. That change comes directly at the hands of the seventy-plus member groups partnering with the small staff at Community Shares, who over the past eighteen years have gone from a $250,000 giving campaign to over a million dollars annually. “Our sense of collaboration sustains us during these challenging times.”

2. The Creative Company

Number of employees: 7
Years in business: 21
Fun fact: They have three floor-to-ceiling blackboard walls on to which employees are encouraged to unleash their creativity.

• In July 2008, after twenty years in business, president Laura Gallagher downsized her company to focus on its gifts: creativity, spirituality and fun. Gallagher focuses on finding the right employee fit right up front, requiring prospects to spend a day working with her before they’re ever hired, no strings attached. The result is a highly customized, specialized staff that’s perhaps not for everyone, but works extraordinarily well together.

3. Door Creek Dental

Number of employees: 17
Years in business: 45
Fun fact: Avid participants in MG&E’s Green Power Tomorrow program and regular visitors to Guatemala to set up free weeklong dental clinics.

• At Door Creek Dental, there’s a heavy emphasis on patient relationships. Staff members are instructed to “treat each patient as you would your own parents,” says office manager Jill Korfmacher. Employees review each other annually and are trained across disciplines, resulting in a sense of ownership and empowerment. “Dr. Nicole Andersen and Dr. Scott Kirkpatrick are good and kind people,” says Korfmacher, “and that flows into the staff.”

4. Big Wild Communications

Number of employees: 6
Years in business: 9
Fun fact: Producers of radio shows Lunch Pail Logic and The Big Wild and coordinators of the Wisconsin Outdoor Education Expo.

• Big Wild Communications knows how to have fun while keeping the focus on the client. Employees have a wide range of experience in all areas of communication, from event planning to radio and video production, customer service training to public relations and even legislative consulting. As a staff they keep it candid, transparent and unified. “Internally,” says Shauna Breneman, director of public and media relations, “we are a family.”

5. EZ Office Products

Number of employees: 10
Years in business: 4 in Madison
Fun fact: Owned and operated by the Molz family since 1976, where founding father Bert Molz got his start in Philadelphia as BF Molz.

• It’s a simple philosophy—earn the confidence of customers one at a time, by providing good products at fair prices with unbeatable service—and it’s been working in Madison since 2006. Family values are the corporate culture and the heartbeat of EZ Office Products, now operated (and modeled) in Madison by husband and wife team Gary and Rose Molz.

Honorable Mentions

Three Madison-area companies that also scored big as Best Places to Work

CPM Marketing
Number of employees: 153
Years in business: 23
What they do: Health care customer relationship management for hospitals including database development, market analysis, strategic planning and targeted personal communications
Not to mention… Positive feedback from one appreciative employee of this family-owned and operated company: “I have been truly stunned by the level of trust and employee faithfulness at CPM. I have never before
completely agreed with a company for whom I work.” CPM trusted employees enough to share Best Places to Work results during Pizza Day, a popular lunchtime recognition of individual and company achievements. CPM also emphasizes community with a holiday food drive for Middleton Urban Ministry and team walkers in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation fundraiser.

GKA Research
Number of employees: 9 full-time, 4 part-time
Years in business: 6
What they do: Market research and consulting, including new product development, customer and consumer trends, green marketing and sustainability management
Not to mention… Last month GKA partnered with Ernst & Young and WisBusiness.com, leading a Germany-Wisconsin business exchange delegation to Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich exploring green jobs growth in energy, transportation, manufacturing and higher
education. The trip included meetings with top-level cabinet members, embassy officials, business and civic leaders. And perks like full health, dental and optical coverage and unlimited vacation (no joke) add serious value to the young company’s forward-minded mission.

Miron Construction
Number of employees: 1,200 (approximately 290 full-time in Dane County; headquartered in Neenah, Wisconsin)
Years in business: 92
What they do: Construction management, design-build, industrial services, pre-construction and general contracting
Not to mention… In addition to paid health insurance, company plans include discretionary bonus, pension (remember those?), profit sharing, 401(K) and a fitness center. New this year: a comprehensive health assessment, valued at $1,500 per person, completely
covered by insurance and open to both employees and spouses. That a business could potentially spend millions on a wellness plan if every employee and spouse takes part speaks to all sorts of smart bottom lines.

– Brennan Nardi

HOW WE RANKED OUR WINNERS

Madison Magazine and Live at Five’s Best Places to Work is based on an employee-engagement framework developed by Next Generation Consulting.

Forty companies reached the fifty-percent survey response rate for eligibility.

Employees were asked to rate their employer in a forty-question, web-based survey that measures companies in these six “areas of engagement”:

1) Trust
Working in an environment where information is shared and people act with integrity and respect

2) Management
Working with supervisors and managers who lead, guide and give feedback to individuals and teams

3) Development
Having opportunities to learn and grow

4) Rewards
Being compensated and appreciated according to one’s performance and contribution to an organization

5) Connection
Feeling a part of something bigger; working for more than just a paycheck

6) Life-Work Balance
Having flexibility to pursue their career and a life outside of work

The ten winning companies for 2010 were chosen because they ranked the highest—over 85 percent—in all six dimensions of employee engagement.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

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