Best Places to Work 2014

While so many things are changing and affecting today’s workforce—the economy, technology and Boomers giving way to the next generation of leaders, to name only a few—the fundamentals of a top-notch workplace are standing the test of time

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TIM BURTON

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Clan. Folk. Group. Tribe. Family. These might not be the first words to roll off your tongue when dishing about your boss or coworkers.

But the winners of our latest “Best Places to Work” contest referred to their colleagues as family so frequently, we found ourselves double-checking the dictionary. 

“We’re really a family here.”

“Team members treat each other as family.”

“We treat all of our employees as if they were family.”

“We are a big family here and have fun.”

What does it mean, in the context of work, to feel like a family?

“Feeling like a family can be interpreted as having one’s work valued, being treated with respect, and being given the opportunity to grow and develop in one’s career.”

That’s according to Dr. Patricia Mullins, senior lecturer in UW–Madison’s School of Business and an expert in careers, specializing in life-work balance.

“First and foremost,” she continues, “people want to be in a situation in which they are able to do their best work—and having flexibility, connection, trust and development opportunities foster that.”

These attributes are precisely what our “Best Places to Work” awards set out to recognize. Every two years Madison Magazine invites local businesses, government agencies and not-for-profits to take part in the contest, in hopes of nabbing a top spot on the list.

This year a hundred companies from the Madison area threw their logo’ed hats, baking aprons and lab coats into the ring. To be eligible, at least fifty percent of the staff had to answer forty open-ended and agree-disagree-type questions in a web-based survey conducted by employee engagement research firm Next Generation Consulting.

Of the seventy-eight eligible businesses, twenty-six emerged as winners based on their scores in these six areas of engagement: trust, management, development, connection, life-work balance and rewards. In five of these six categories, companies needed scores above eighty percent and in the remaining one they could not dip below sixty-five percent. 

A sensible algorithm, yet we couldn’t help noticing that “Best Places to Work” seem to offer something far greater than the sum of its parts: that most salient sense of family.

In our quest to honor our sizeable swath of winners, we grouped them by size into three categories: 1–10 employees, 11–99 and 100-plus.

This was a record-breaking year, with more winners than ever and scores rising in every single category, compared to previous years. 

None of this surprises Next Generation founder, economist, futurist and Madison Magazine columnist Rebecca Ryan, who notes that Madison is now in a period of economic stabilization, reflective of a national trend.

“The Recession probably created a few more ‘Best Places to Work,’” she reasons. “There is nothing like a foxhole to bond people to each other, and the Great Recession was a colossal ruckus.”

Above all, this bonding built trust, both by and for employers. “At many companies, when leaders reached out to employees and said, ‘I’m the first one who’s going to take a salary cut and I need your ideas and energy to help us make it through this,’ trust abounds. It creates a sense of connection. And it makes you feel like your manager gets it.”

KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL

One manager who “gets it” is Denise Quade, certified master kitchen and bath designer. Her four-year-old interior design firm, Denise Quade Design, is our 2014 Best Places to Work winner in the 1–10 employee category.

“Denise involves us in every decision she makes,” says senior project coordinator Pam Krivanek, who is seated at a marble-top table in a mock dining room. “Take the showroom,” she continues, referring to their newly minted space off Verona Road. They made every decision together, down to each handle and countertop.

Quade, an industry veteran, feels lucky that she can trust her five-member staff (seven, if you count pooches Emma and Roscoe) and that she can draw from their eclectic tastes. This mindset, Next Generation’s Rebecca Ryan points out, is a hallmark of savvy business owners.

Companies with high trust levels “tend to outperform their competitors on profitability by up to three times,” she says. “The great firms of the future will be those that can tap the human ingenuity of every employee. Companies had a terrific chance to start that process during the Recession.”

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

DENISE QUADE DESIGN: (L–R) Pam Krivanek, Denise Quade, Tim Quade, Erica Miller and dog Emma.

Not coincidentally, that’s precisely when Quade went into business for herself, after unwrapping a custom-designed business card and a book on starting your own business that her kids gave her for Christmas. “I started in the worst of economic times,” in April 2010, she remembers, “and we hit the ground running.”

For the first year, this was an all-Quade operation, with her daughter and twin sons handling marketing and graphic design, and husband Tim playing jack-of-all-trades between day jobs. After he retired, Quade brought him on full-time to head up IT, service work and deliveries.

In year two, Krivanek came on board, as did design coordinator Erica Miller, Quade’s “right arm.”

“I totally trust the girls.” Sure, her management style was “more in their face” at first, she says. Soon, they were so accustomed to her ideas and she no longer had to oversee every decision. “It goes back to trust. I don’t have to double-check everything anymore.”

“You don’t feel like you’re under a microscope,” Miller explains. “Even when bad things happen, my intentions are never questioned.”

Contrast this with working in a low-trust environment. “It sucks,” Rebecca Ryan says. “And we probably cherish our time or memories working in a high-trust environment, where you feel heard, where you feel like your boss has your back, where you feel safe making mistakes.”

Miller says they always give each other the benefit of the doubt. “The finger never gets pointed at anybody. We live as a team and die as a team—except when Pam screws up,” she adds, tongue-in-cheek.

“We all respect each others’ opinions,” Krivanek starts, “no matter how awful they are,” flashing a disarming smile toward Miller.

Sitting around the table, listening to “the girls” throw playful barbs back and forth, you might easily mistake this team for a nuclear family. Quade says their “mix of personalities” is part of what makes this dynamic work so well.

To wit, Miller says, “We’re all so different. Pam and I would not be friends in real life.” In essence, she says, “it feels like family. We love like family and we hate like family.”

They often eat like a family, too, taking turns cooking lunch for each other in the working kitchen here. “We work a lot of hours together,” Quade says, “so we make sure we can have fun together.”

But getting burned out on work is discouraged here. Quade believes firmly that “everyone’s private life is as important as work life.”

It’s not just lip service, Miller says. “She’ll yell at us to go home at five o’clock. Or if she knows we’re here late, she’ll tell us to sleep in and come in late tomorrow.”

This is referred to as “life-work balance,” and survey respondents ranked it as the most important driver for determining workplace satisfaction.   

Careers expert Patricia Mullins calls it “work-life flexibility” and underscores its influence. “The availability of flexible work solutions like telecommuting, flexible hours and job flexibility can foster an active employee–employer partnership based on the unique needs of a particular business and its staff.”

NIXING THE NINE-TO-FIVE

Jennifer Persike could have told you that. She runs Lodi- and Madison-based promotional marketing company Creative Marketing Specialists, this year’s “Best Places to Work” winner in the 11–99 employee category (and 2008 “Best Places to Work” alum).

The majority of her twelve-person staff works from home or outside of the office. The two who do commute to the office say the thirty-two-year-old company’s commitment to life-work balance extends far beyond working remotely. 

Arriving at CMS from a large corporation, account executive and sales coordinator Tracy Sachtjen knows all too well the difference working for a small business, especially one that puts a premium on family and personal health, can make. 

When Sachtjen wanted to take some time off to travel, she didn’t feel as though asking would put her job at risk. 

“I used to curl,” she starts to explain, before fellow sales coordinator and officemate Megan Moericke interrupts.

PHOTOS BY SHARON VANORNY

CREATIVE MARKETING SPECIALISTS: (Top row) Julie Pankow Helland, Tracy Sachtjen, Megan Moericke and Jennifer Persike; (bottom row) Carol Roeker, Talia Shields, Stacy Lyle and Kari Goninen.

“She’s being modest! She was in the Olympics!”

Sachtjen smiles. “That was really nice. Some people would say, ‘No, you can’t take off.’”

When account executive Carol Roeker became sick two years ago, she recalls the amazing outpouring of support. “I was off for four or five months and I didn’t have to worry about anything.”

If you’re thinking that such a sympathetic tack might be bad for business, consider that life-work flwnt thing.”

Life-work flexibility, Mullins continues, “means not having to choose between work-life issues and advancement, whether you are a single person dealing with personal health issues or caring for aging parents, or whether you are a parent managing adoption, sick kids or continuing education.” 

“There have been several times when someone’s kids are sick or a family is in crisis,” Persike says, and everyone will just step in where the other left off. “It might not be your project or sale, but it does represent us.”

If it sounds like something a mom would say, it is. Persike and her entire staff are mothers.

“Family is very important” to Persike, says Roeker. Lucky for business, this dedication comes back full circle. Wrote one employee in the anonymous survey: “I consider my coworkers family!”

ROOM TO GROW

Having life-work balance also means feeling supported in one’s drive to learn and develop, professionally and personally, Mullins says. “In general, employees want to grow and develop in their careers. A flexible workplace will recognize that career development may mean an employee needs time off to attend continuing education courses or seminars, financial support for tuition or deferred completion opportunities.”

Take Heather Dotzauer, accounting manager at Century 21 Affiliated, our 2014 “Best Place to Work” winner in the 100-plus employee category with 109 employees in the Madison area.

She started here answering phones part-time while in college. After graduating, Dotzauer did some time in “the real world” before returning here, where she’s stayed for the last thirteen years.

“I’ve always felt that this is a second family here,” she says. 

Her business card lists a second title: Realtor. She says management “welcomed and encouraged” her to get her real estate license. “Whatever you want to take on, they are open to that.”

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

CENTURY 21 AFFILIATED: (Back row, L–R) Sherri Swan-Edmunds, Dan Kruse, Bill Kessler and Clinton Smith; (front row, L–R) Rick Amdahl and Laura Lahti.

President Dan Kruse explains, “We like to look within for growth. We love to support people, whether it’s our front desk person getting a real estate license, a new mother or someone looking to go back to school. If someone wants to grow as a human, we want to support that.”

It’s a strategy that’s paying off: Just three years ago, Century 21 Affiliated comprised some three hundred agents in Wisconsin. They are now twelve-hundred strong, with offices in Madison, Stoughton, Sun Prairie, Cross Plains and Mt. Horeb, as well as outposts in the greater Chicago area, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota.

“Last year, we grew in profit by over ninety percent,” says Jason Fowler, who also worked his way up from the front desk, and who is now corporate project manager, as well as a licensed Realtor. “We are number one [in sales] out of 7,100 locations worldwide.”

The appearance of real estate firms like Century 21 Affiliated on the “Best Places” roster is a signal of the economic uptick.

“Two years ago,” says Ryan, “you didn’t see real estate companies angling for a ‘Best Place to Work’ award because the market was grim and many agents were struggling,” hit hard during the Recession.

But Century 21 Affiliated has hung on to its staff, even in lean times. Says Fowler, “We’ve always had owners who care about what you do. You can see that in the nine staff members that work here. Half of us have been here for ten years.” Liking your coworkers helps. Fowler says that at a lot of workplaces, “people will want to go on vacation to get away from the people they work with. We go on vacation together.”

Game Changers 

What does it take to be the best? Take a look at the playbooks of these six winning workplaces.

BEYOND BEAUTY

PHOTO BY INK PHOTOGRAPHIC / COURTESY OF BE INSPIRED SALON

BE INSPIRED SALON: (L-R) Jena Satterlee, Cassidy Hunt, Erin Kirkpatrick, Tara Pavesich, Kati Whitledge, Amanda Holtan, Diana Schmiedlin, Erin Weix, Nate Mael and Anna Lutzke.

Be Inspired Salon
Founded: 2010
Employees: 10

If your heart is set on a post at Be Inspired Salon, the bridal hair styling and makeup boutique on Yellowstone Drive, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Founder Kati Whitledge believes in lifelong learning; professional and personal development are cornerstones of her company.

Whitledge offers monthly advanced education to her stylists, who collectively specialize in curly hair cutting and styling. Most of it is industry-related, like their training to become certified DevaCurl cutting experts. Other courses cover topics like nutrition, self-defense, insurance and even retirement planning.

“Part of our hiring process is determining the personality styles of each candidate,” she explains, noting that she gravitates toward stylists with a drive for self-development, the kind of people who would gladly take part in an annual “vision board” project. “When working full-time together, you will spend more time with your team than you sometimes do with your own family.”

She takes the same care in pairing stylists with new clients. A survey on their website called “Meet Your Match” couples you with a compatible coiffeuse based on personality and dress type.  

“We believe in building lifetime relationships.” That goes for their relationship with the community too. Be Inspired Salon belongs to Dane Buy Local and the Middleton Chamber of Commerce. Individual hairdressers also frequent local networking groups, “which helps us stay connected to the community.”

REAL REWARDS

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

COMMUNITY SHARES OF WISCONSIN: (L–R) Kathleen Messinger, Moira Urich, Justin Williams, Julie Horst, Emily Winecke, Crystel Anders, Sue Hemling, Leah Nell Adams and Ken Forney.

Community Shares of Wisconsin
Founded: 1971
Employees: 9

There’s an all-too-common notion that nonprofit employees should be expected to work for less than their for-profit counterparts. The nine employees of Community Shares of Wisconsin, a social action fund that serves sixty member nonprofits (and a 2010 “Best Places” winner), are glad their board of directors thinks differently.

“We’re lucky because the Community Shares board is committed to providing competitive compensation in terms of salary and benefits,” says executive director Crystel Anders. “The extraordinary talents that employees bring to work every day deserve to be acknowledged and rewarded.”

Established in 1971, CSW raises funds and offers support to local, grassroots nonprofits working toward social, economic and environmental justice. Last year they distributed more than $600,000 to their member nonprofits. The reality, Anders points out, is that “real social change takes years,” not days or months. And the staff knows that. “We are all in it for the long haul.”

It helps that their work aligns so closely with their personal values. Employees report that a sense of purpose, and impacting the community in a positive way, are vital reasons this is a “Best Place to Work.” 

Working closely with member nonprofits and the board (made up of a representative from each nonprofit) also builds a sense of unity. Says Anders, “I would guess everyone here is a hopeful person; they believe that if we all work together the world can be a better place for everyone.”

WORK-LAUGH BALANCE

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

PEGASUS GAMES: (Left side, front to back) Eric Hany, Megan Tanksley, Athena Foster and Jon Fish (reading); (right side, front to back) James Nettum, Terry Aitken, Steve Lemberg (in red hat), Carlos Echeverria (reading), Lorece Aitken and Moe Gray. 

Pegasus Games
Founded: 1980
Employees: 10

The folks at Pegasus Games think the world would be a better place if people would just relax and play tabletop games with each other.

“Instead of mind games,” quips “Boss Lady” Lory Aitken, one of three owners. Her management philosophy? You can take work seriously without being serious all the time.

Wisconsin’s oldest operating games shop, located in the Market Square shopping center, Pegasus Games sells tabletop games like board games, card games, role-playing games and miniatures. Part of the store is reserved for game playing, which takes place every evening and weekend. 

On the topic of life-work balance, there’s no competition here. Work is not life, Aitken believes, especially for part-time and temporary workers, who make up the majority of the ten-member staff.

“We refuse to be an unreasonably demanding employer that breeds resentful employees,” which she calls counter-productive.

Here, having fun is kind of the whole point. “If we have to sacrifice our dignity while dodging plush projectiles for mouthing off, so be it. Laughing at ourselves is a daily occurrence.”

On a more serious note, Aitken suggests that she and her staff share a love for something beyond fun and games. 

“We all love gaming in that it builds social relationships, teaches myriad lessons people of all ages need to learn and brings people face-to-face,” she says. “This connects us to each other as Pega-minions and to our larger communities of gamers and future gamers.”

IDEAS AND IMPACT

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

COMMUNICATIONS INNOVATIONS: (Back row) Tabitha Gehrmann and Anna Vierck; (swing row) Katie Leskovar, Meg Leonard, Josh Brown, Becky Lotto and Taylor DeValk; (front row) McKenzie Hoffman, Jenny Gilles, Melissa Schlimgen and Liz Feit.

Communication Innovations
Founded: 2006
Employees: 43

Imagine witnessing the very first time an infant looks up at his mother and smiles, the first time a little girl cheers, “I did it!” or the moment a child has a breakthrough and finally signs, “more.” Then imagine you played a part in these victories.

Pediatric therapy center Communication Innovations “is about being able to experience those firsts with a family and their child,” shared one staff member anonymously. 

Since 2006, CI has been providing occupational, physical and speech and language therapy and myriad specialty services to three hundred to four hundred children in the Madison area, says clinic director Jenny Gilles.

“When you walk in the door at CI,” at any of their locations in Fitchburg, Sun Prairie or Middleton, “you belong,” wrote one staff member. “You are a respected and valued member of the CI family.”

Overwhelmingly, staff cite the opportunity “to engage with individuals who have overcome insurmountable obstacles and continue to persist and remain incredibly positive in the face of challenges” as what makes working at CI so gratifying for its forty-three employees.

Therapists here also treasure the way they are encouraged to suggest new ideas and pursue their interests through continuing education.

As one of them put it, “No idea is too big, too small or too crazy. Our suggestions are always valued and given the opportunities to flourish.”

Added another, “We have the ability to dream of something we want to become or specialize in and not only are we able to do this, we are encouraged.”

“Staff members have opportunities to learn from one another daily,” wrote one therapist. “Working closely together, whether it be co-treating during a session, sharing an office, or brainstorming with the team, allows the clinical skills and creativity of our team to blossom and make the greatest impact for the individuals we serve!”

CHANGE AGENTS

PHOTO COURTESY OF KELLER WILLIAMS REALTY

The Keller Williams Madison team.

Keller Williams Realty
Founded: 1983. Madison location opened in 2000.
Employees: 150

Chairman and co-founder Gary Keller is fond of saying that this is “a training and coaching company that just happens to be in the business of real estate.”

True to this vision, Keller Williams Realty in Madison (a 2012 “Best Places” alum), offers ongoing educational courses to its agents and employees to help them build signature brands, grow their personal businesses and “keep them on top of their game,” says Tony DiMaggio, COO/CFO and market center administrator of the Madison west location.

“If we grow the careers and business of our agents, then they will grow our company.” But the ultimate goal isn’t a multi-million dollar sale or snagging a sought-after client. It’s “having a life worth living.”

In a line of work that can be cutthroat, you’ll be hard pressed to find any bad blood here. Agents at KW, DiMaggio says, are more like business partners than competitors, thanks in part to their profit-sharing system.

“Basically, we take all the profits that are generated to the brokerage and we split that with the agents (forty-eight percent goes to agents) and staff,” who are eligible to participate by bringing agents to the company. Employees are vested after three years, and assuming the agents they attracted are still active with KW, they receive residual income, even if they leave the company.

“We truly work as a team, from our top and most experienced agents down to our brand new agents,” says DiMaggio. “Everyone is truly dedicated to helping others succeed in our office.”

Like agents, employees are primed to excel here, too. With each new hire, management takes their “true personality profile” into consideration and assigns them a role in which they’re most likely to succeed.  

RISE, SHINE, EMPOWER

PHOTO COURTESY OF BATCH BAKEHOUSE

BATCH BAKEHOUSE: (L–R) Abigail Campbell, Barbie Nelson, Lauren Carter, Lisa Penning, Erin Palombi, Colette Spranger, Miros Munoz and Katie Madar.

Batch Bakehouse
Founded: 2009
Employees: 21

Not many of us are in the mood for dancing at work in the wee, dark hours of the morning. But even before the sun comes up and pours through the storefront windows of Batch Bakehouse on Williamson Street, you’ll find busting a move and baking go hand in hand here. 

Susan Detering, one of Batch’s managers and one of its four co-owners, helped open the bakery in 2009 on the heels of a French holiday in which she sampled croissants in France.

Surprised to find a bakery on a “Best Places to Work List”? We were. Food service workers aren’t exactly beating down our doors to nominate their bistros or bars. But the pastry chefs and bread bakers at Batch receive generous health insurance, paid vacations and year-end bonuses, all rarities in the industry.  

“But what makes our bakery the ‘best place’ is our positive work environment,” says Detering, who is routinely awed by the way her staff stays upbeat while pulling a twelve-hour shift on a holiday or weekend, when most people are home with their families.

Co-owner and head pastry chef Lauren Carter “humbly inspires her entire team, listens, learns from them and empowers them to bring new things to the table.”

Like the time one of their chefs adopted a vegan diet. At first, Detering says, “That was a bit of a problem because we have to taste everything we make.”

But they made it her métier by arranging to have her fellow chefs taste her sweets and having her lead research and development on their new vegan line of baked goods. How does a butter-free treat pass muster? “A non-vegan has to taste it and not notice.”

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