General Mills is a place employees come to stay

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2009 - 2:24 PM

Wonder why it does so well in surveys of great places to work? Wonder no more.

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It was a typical day.

Quick breakfast with what was left in the fridge by the end of the week. Two teenage boys out the door, reasonably on time.

Out to car to go to work. Low on gas. In the passenger seat: the Mother's Day gift for Mom in Florida. This year, would really like to avoid spending more on postage than I spent on the gift and still get it there on time. In the back, workout clothes in a gym bag, untouched all week.

But today, my chances of knocking a few things off my list were looking good. Instead of driving downtown to the Star Tribune, I was driving to the General Mills Inc. campus in Golden Valley.

My mission: to experience firsthand why the company best known for Cheerios and Wheaties repeatedly does so well on lists of employee-friendly places to work. General Mills made Fortune magazine's list in January, and it's a perennial on Working Mother magazine's list. It's also been recognized for its diversity, wellness initiatives, training programs and ethics.

My daylong visit, which combined a tour with interviews, included a stop at the concierge service (they'll even run errands for employees for a $6 fee), a fitness center, mini grocery store and full-service health clinic.

I checked off my list as the day went along: package mailed in the morning at the concierge. Walk along the nature preserve. Dinner ordered at the on-site D'Amico & Sons and picked up on my way out the door, along with a jug of milk at the store. Gas bought on my way out the door at the full-service automotive center. I tried for an oil change, but it was booked. Anyone could get used to this.

But many of General Mills' perks go beyond the on-site conveniences. The company also offers flex time, has a sabbatical program, on-site care for infants and covers up to $10,000 of adoption fees. It also has backup child care and helps parents arrange for care when their children are ill.

Workplace experts said the payoff of such programs is immense for workers and companies.

"If you don't have people leaving and you don't have to pay for the search and training for new people, you have just saved yourself a ton of money," said Liz Sobrino, a director with the Alliance for Workplace Excellence in Washington, D.C.

Mike Davis, General Mills' senior vice president of global human resources, said the company's ability to create a flexible, inclusive and challenging workplace "is critically tied to attracting and retaining top talent, driving innovation and, ultimately, connecting with consumers around the world."

General Mills isn't the only company in Minnesota making strides to help people strike that balance. The Mayo Clinic has made the Fortune list for its stellar medical benefits and Best Buy has won praise for its program that lets employees work when and where they want, as long as they get their work done. Others offer on-site day care, programs for new mothers and generous retirement programs.

Listening is free

But with many people thankful to have a job or land one just about anywhere -- perks or no perks -- experts say it's as important as ever for individuals and companies to take steps to improve their workplace, even if it's on a shoestring budget or no budget at all. Sobrino said it often comes down to managers taking time to talk to employees and listen to their ideas. "The manager needs to get out from behind his desk," she said.

Despite lower-than-expected third-quarter earnings, General Mills has been weathering the recession well. The company said it has not cut back on any of its employee programs and said that many of them don't have a price tag.

"Inclusion is free, respect is free, having a manager who listens is free," said Ken Charles, General Mills' vice president of diversity and inclusion.

General Mills recruits top candidates with the goal of keeping them so it can draw on their expertise as they evolve into mentors. "This is a place where we want people to stay for 35 years," Charles said.

General Mills, which has 29,500 employees worldwide, 5,500 in the Twin Cities and more than 3,000 on its main campus, said it has an approximately 3 percent voluntary turnover rate for Twin Cities-based employees.

Executives said the company's success is about more than the bells and whistles, it's about making sure that every employee feels connected. The company has several diversity networks, including the Hispanic Network and the Women's Network. It also has numerous clubs, including for knitting and biking. And it regularly surveys its employees: Are they satisfied? What kind of job is their boss doing? Are they getting enough advancement opportunity, enough training?

"If people feel at home, they are able to bring the best ideas forward and be more engaged," Charles said.

The company is also experimenting with what the workplace might look like 10 years from now.

When about 160 of General Mills' employees arrive on campus, they don't head for a desk; they go to a locker to hang their coat and stash their gear just like kids do at school. They are mobile, not tethered to a desk but always reachable via phone and able to move freely depending on what they need to do at that moment. The area where they work, known as FUSE (Flexible User Shared Environment) has brightly colored walls with various work spaces, including small offices, large desks with docking stations for laptops and a quiet zone.

Todd Messerli, director of global real estate, who has gone mobile, said he has learned that he needs a lot less storage space and so far likes the setup. "We found that people aren't at their desks 60 percent of the time, so it makes sense" to have more diverse workstations, he said.

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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