These companies have history on their side

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2012 - 5:44 AM

Some of today's top workplaces can trace their roots way, way back to rather more humble origins.

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Martin County Bank, 1875

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Computers have pushed aside paper ledgers and quill pens. Office windows that used to frame bucolic scenes of grazing cows now look onto streets bustling with city traffic. Employees nowadays are far more likely to hold advanced degrees and far less likely to wear bowler hats. Dollar sums that once seemed a fortune now look more like your average cell-phone bill.

Workplaces, in other words, have changed in the century-plus since some of this year's Top Workplaces started doing business. The companies have switched tools, locations and, in some cases, even whole business models. But their values and goals remain relatively constant, company representatives say, along with the employees' commitment that propelled them from the 19th century into the 21st.

Two workplaces began as orphanages, for example, but are now doing something else entirely: Washburn Children's Center serves children with social, emotional or behavioral problems, and Ecumen serves seniors. "Whether providing a home for orphaned children, or now providing an array of senior services, we've really stayed connected to that mission of creating home," said Eric Schubert, Ecumen's vice president of communications and public affairs.

Cargill, which began as a single grain-storage facility in 1865 and now does business around the world, focusing not just on agricultural commodities such as food, but also for manufacturing substances used in paint, adhesives and couch-cushion stuffing. An early Cargill president wrote that "our word is just as good as our bond," said Jennifer Johnson, the company's associate archivist. "Cargill's still committed to its business ethics and how we act and perform, not just in the U.S. but in every country around the world."

Superficial details have changed since the Volunteers of America-Minnesota opened in 1896, said President and CEO Paula Hart. Employees used to wear military-style uniforms, and one early VOA leader, among the first Minnesotans to earn a master's degree in social work, would don hers on Friday nights and hit the bars -- to pass a hat for donations.

Today's employees are no less dedicated, Hart said. "They're tackling some of the toughest issues people have in life, doing hard, gritty work and finding great fulfilment in doing it."

Profinium Financial shares the goal of helping people, in a somewhat different way. The Fairmont-based financial services company began as the Martin County Bank in 1875. Founder Albert L. Ward invested $700 for a two-story, clay-brick structure "roughly the size of our [current] teller line," said Michael W. Riley, Profinium's chief retail and marketing officer. Helping celebrate its opening were a marching band of employees lined up in suits and bowler hats.

Today's employees dress a little differently, but they're still "trying to help people achieve their dreams," said Fred W. Krahmer, a Profinium owner and history buff.

Two St. Paul colleges among the Top Workplaces opened within a few years of each other. The University of St. Thomas was founded in 1894 by the archbishop of St. Paul. All male until 1977, it taught men to "become teachers and priests and businessmen and occupations of that nature," said Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations.

Rasmussen College opened in 1900 to provide men and women with technical skills for accounting, business, administrative or secretarial work, said Rasmussen President Kristi Waite. Now spacious and high-tech, the school once held overcrowded classrooms, old typewriters and a cash register that only went as high as $10.

Washburn Center for Children opened in 1896, when Minneapolis milling magnate Cadwallader C. Washburn left $375,000 in his estate to start an orphanage, said Executive Director Steve Lepinski. Though kids don't live there now, Washburn still serves kids at risk.

The pay probably wasn't great, and it still isn't, Riley said. "People don't come into this work to make a lot of money. They do it out of passion, love and commitment."

With similar motivations, Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare started when a Carleton College student who suffered from scoliosis and a St. Paul doctor persuaded the 1897 Legislature to approve a hospital for disabled children, said Dr. Steven Koop, Gillette's medical director, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and author of a company history.

Antibiotics didn't exist, surgery was dangerous, and early doctors knew little about treating severe disabilities. Since travel was slow and difficult, children moved into Gillette until they got better -- 400 days, on average. But the mission, Koop said, is timeless. "I have to believe in this world we live in today, which is polarized for lots of reasons, that the love of children still draws us together."

When Securian Financial began selling insurance in 1880, a life-insurance policy might total $2,000. In 19th century St. Paul, "it was a great place to start a venture like an insurance company ... a time of putting down roots and new growth and lots of opportunity," said Mark Heir, second vice president for communications and research. "It's fun to be working in a place that was really part of history."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

 

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