Small companies: Teamwork, trust (and fun)

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2012 - 5:43 AM

Those are among the elements that small companies say contribute to them becoming Top Workplaces.

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Nancy Lyons, president and CEO of Clockwork Active Media Systems, in the company’s 1930s-era gas station building.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Creating a place where employees want to work was simple, according to Nancy Lyons, president and CEO of Clockwork Active Media Systems, a digital media agency in Minneapolis.

All she and her business partners needed to do was create a place where they wanted to work.

"That's how we approached building the business and building the culture," Lyons said. "That was a key component of our business plan."

Clockwork's founders, who launched the company in 2002 after working together in another venture, must have gotten more than a few things right.

Clockwork, which has 62 employees and specializes in Web strategy, design, application development, mobile development and social media, placed second among the 40 small companies. The digital-age work gets done in the service bays of a revamped 1930s-vintage gas station.

Other small companies in the Top Workplaces rankings include medical and health care-related businesses, technology and consulting companies and insurance and financial services companies. Some got started as recently as the middle of the last decade, a few in the early to middle years of the last century and one in the 1800s. Most are privately held with a Twin Cities or regional base, while a few are local nonprofits or Minnesota-based locations of large, publicly held companies.

In Clockwork's case, being a Top Workplace means acknowledging good work every day, encouraging peer recognition and talking about each employee's contribution to a new project, said Lyons, who also was recognized with a Leadership award in the Top Workplaces project.

"When we succeed we talk about why," Lyons said. "We have regular staff meetings where in the interest of full transparency we discuss how we're doing financially, what's in the pipelines, successes we've had and where we could improve.''

The payoff is clear in comments from employees, including one who noted being treated respectfully and declared, "I am excited about Monday mornings."

Performance improvement consultant J. Forrest said communication, trust, transparency and accountability are among the characteristics of good workplaces. He bases that on hundreds of workplace culture surveys he has done at Employee Strategies, his Minneapolis consulting firm.

"If you strip it away, my take on great places to work is they've established community, and by that I mean there's a sense of belonging," said Forrest. "It can't just be about the work."

The driving force at Brenny Transportation, a distribution, logistics and trucking company in St. Cloud, is this Zig Ziglar quote cited by general manager Bonnie Supan: "You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want." Brenny ranked No. 9 on the small company list.

Supan attributed that guiding principle to founders Joyce and Todd Brenny, who started the company in 1996 after having less positive experiences at other companies. To support that mission of serving others -- customers, co-workers and the community -- employees regularly work on team building, including weekly meetings where the company's beliefs and values are reiterated.

"The customer service we give at Brenny is not just for customers," said Beth Johnson, a Brenny team leader. "Our customer service is to the person sitting next to me working, it's to the driver I'm trying to give directions to, it's across the board to everybody we come into contact with."

That team building included a retreat last year to Cancun as a reward for meeting company goals, Johnson said. It's the third trip to Mexico she's taken in six years at Brenny.

At SafeNet Consulting, team building -- and fun -- also are part of the culture at the management consulting firm based in Minnetonka. Because most SafeNet consultants spend most of their time working in the field at client locations, the company offers a unique work space as a home base for its consultants, CEO Bob Purdy said.

"We have a very collaborative environment here," Purdy said. "It's important to us to have a place they can come back to and collaborate with leaders here to be more effective."

SafeNet, ranked No. 40, occupies a renovated warehouse with open areas that include a living room with a fireplace, games and a pool table, Purdy said.

Trust is one component that makes Atomic Learning a Top Workplace, according to CEO Dan Meyer. The Little Falls company, ranked No. 14, is the leading provider of technology training for teachers and students in the education market.

"There's a high level of trust in our organizations," Meyer said. "It's across the organization as well as up and down the organization. When people are working in that environment, there's a real empowerment."

Contributing to that sense of trust, Meyer said, is Atomic Learning's "officeless" environment, where he and everybody else works in a cubicle.

"We're a very transparent organization," Meyer said. Nobody sits behind walls or closed doors. It's a very open-door policy, it's a high level of communication and collaboration."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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