Top Workplaces: Special award winners

Employees singled out these companies for special praise.

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Rachel Greeninger, 18, of Woodbury, stops for gas at Kwik Trip in Woodbury.

Photo: CAROLINE YANG • Special to the StarTribune,

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ETHICS: Intertech

“If you tell the truth you have one story to remember.” These words were uttered time and again by Ted Salonek, the father of Intertech CEO Tom Salonek. Salonek grew up on family farm near Montrose, Minn., where he often observed Ted doing the right thing. “I watched him run a business with a lot of integrity during the ’80s — and those were hard times to be a farmer,” said Salonek. Years later, at his first corporate tech job, Salonek encountered the moral opposite of his father: A manager who took credit for Salonek’s problem-solving and good work. “That definitely was part of the impetus for leaving and starting my own thing,” said Salonek, who founded the Eagan-based software company in 1991. Salonek and his business partners have since created a corporate culture that values honesty, transparency and recognizing good work. Intertech Foundation underscores these values by providing cash assistance to families with terminally ill children and supporting students studying technology and computer science.

DIRECTION: Kwik Trip

Kwik Trip “works hard to take care of its people,” said Twin Cities-based district leader Lyle Castona. It recently started a health-savings account for employees who qualify for health insurance and put a deposit in each worker’s account. It shares 40 percent of its profits with employees. Part-time workers as well as full timers qualify for vacation time. All employees get about eight weeks of training when they start with the company. And leaders share their business plans with employees through an annual meeting as well as more informal meetings and written materials. “We share so much with the co-workers on so many different levels, so there are no secrets,” Lipp said. “I think people really appreciate that, knowing where the company’s going.” With more than 30 new stores opening this year, Castona said. “The opportunities for advancement are just amazing.”

APPRECIATION: Home Instead Senior Care

“My goal is creating a culture where our caregivers know they’re as important as clients,” said Karyn Vogel, a licensed social worker who manages human resources for Burnsville-based Home Instead Senior Care. Vogel has some formalized ways of thanking her workers, who provide nonmedical services for seniors in their homes. The company hosts a decadent birthday bash for employees at a different restaurant every month (where Vogel encourages everyone to order dessert first). She sends handwritten thank-you cards to workers who exceed company expectations. But a lot of what Vogel does is impromptu. She remembers to check up on those with ailing spouses and other family emergencies. She convenes support groups when beloved clients pass away. The job of a caregiver can be pretty lonely, said Vogel. “These are just little things to help them not feel so alone.”

WORK/LIFE FLEXIBILITY: Counselor Realty

Forget the hype about family-friendly values in the workplace. What employees really need is flexible hours when it comes to juggling work and family life. Of course, the job of a Realtor is inherently flexible and self-directed, but Fridley-based Counselor Realty strives to offer some of that same flexibility to workers in traditional office environments. Counselor Realty managers have demonstrated a willingness to adjust work schedules. They once changed the shifts of an entire corporate department to accommodate the needs of a single employee. The company offers additional support via an employee assistance hot line, plus in-house seminars on tax preparation and other household matters. These are “just things to help our employees be successful and not be stressed all the time,” reasoned Counselor Realty President Andrew Barnes. “It makes sense because happier employees are more productive, too.”

TRAINING: AgStar Financial Services

“Personal development is not just about sending someone to a training,” said Leah Bridger, senior director of human resources for Mankato-based AgStar Financial Services. “It’s really about looking at the individual team member to determine where they want to be, and then setting a course of action to get them there.” AgStar encourages employees to work with managers to develop individualized training plans. The organization has an online portal to help workers find external training, from personal coaching to national conferences. Additional programs are offered in-house. Several AgStar employees praised a companywide session called Crucial Conversations, which prepared them for difficult conversations at work and home. Beginner, intermediate and advanced leadership courses educate employees as they ascend the org. chart. An 18-month program assigns emerging leaders to collaborate on real-life company projects. Then there’s the executive development program, which pairs emerging leaders with AgStar executives for informal coaching and guidance.

BENEFITS: Pharmaceutical Specialties, Inc.

Behind every great benefits package is a generous company-funded health plan. “We’ve got a Blue Cross Blue Shield HSA policy,” said Rick Sandwick, co-president of Rochester-based Pharmaceutical Specialties, Inc., which makes products for people with sensitive skin. “We pay 90 percent of each employee’s premium and 85 percent of the family premium.” The company switched to a cost-saving HSA plan a few years ago, explained Sandwick, but leaders didn’t want to saddle workers with the steep deductibles. “We fund 70 percent of a single person’s deductible and around 40 percent of a family’s deductible,” continued Sandwick. “We try to keep the employees’ premiums and the copays as low as possible.” Pharmaceutical Specialties also provides free family dental coverage and short- and long-term disability. The company even gives Visa gift cards for birthdays and anniversaries, plus it offers a competitive bonus program. “Last year we had an extraordinary year sales-wise,” said Sandwick. “We were able to give a midyear bonus as well as an end-of-year bonus.”

CLUED-IN SENIOR MANAGEMENT: Keller Williams Realty

Keller Williams isn’t a top-down organization, said regional director Todd Butzer. “It’s very rare for a decision to be made — in fact it virtually never happens — where we decide something in senior leadership and then it goes out into the field and we say, ‘You just have to deal with it’. We’re there to support the associates in every way we possibly can, and that goes up to the senior leadership of the country.” Company leaders are always ready to listen, even answering a phone call or text. They also emphasize the value of employee education. It’s been a challenging past few years for the real estate industry, as it climbs out of the recession while also adjusting to a wealth of new technology. “We want to help our associates be as quick as possible to deal with changes,” Butzer said.

MEANINGFULNESS: Pediatric Home Service

Finding meaning in your job might come easily when you’re directly providing the care that lets children and adolescents with complex medical conditions live at home. But at Pediatric Home Service in Roseville, even the operational employees — in the billing department, the warehouse, etc. — consider their work meaningful, said President Mark Hamman. It starts with orientation for new hires, where company leaders emphasize that “we’re here for one reason and one reason only. It’s not about money, it’s not about awards, it’s about taking care of these patients to the nth degree.” Office staffers accompany clinical workers on ride-alongs. “They meet the families and think, I’m helping this kid stay at home. I’m helping this kid thrive. I’m helping this kid be with their family where they belong,’” Hamman said. The evidence that it works? The company’s average retention rate is more than 10 years.

DOERS: PowerObjects

Doing things efficiently and well starts at the hiring level, said Jim Sheehan, COO and partner at PowerObjects in Minneapolis, which provides services and support for Microsoft Dynamics CRM. The company vets its hires in terms of five core values: Think team, always add value, love what you do, live the technology and have a moral compass. “By bringing in people that share the same intrinsic desires, I think you create a team of doers,” Sheehan said. The office of PowerObjects is a relaxed environment with dogs, pinball machines and food trucks, a “Bay Area tech start up feel in the north loop in Minneapolis.” As a company we do one thing and one thing only and we’re the best at it in the world, so it’s very easy to focus on moving forward,” Sheehan said. “Everybody’s working on same thing, which makes it much easier to share and to work collaboratively.”

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