And the winner is ... 12 that went above and beyond

  • Updated: June 22, 2011 - 4:44 PM

Most ethical? Best management? Most appreciative of its employees? Survey says these are the best employers.

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During a training session lecture break Deb Holmes sets up an appointment with a contact. Other Keller Williams agents can be seen in background doing the same.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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DIRECTION

Keller Williams Realty

Keller Williams is a big national company with hundreds of offices, but agents still have a clear sense of what's expected from them on a local level. Mike Weiland knows. He spent 10 years working for another company but joined one of the Twin Cities Keller Williams offices last year. Since then, he's appreciated having strong leadership at a very local level that provides not only training and development opportunities, but also a clear sense of direction at a time when the industry is changing quickly -- and not always in positive ways. "I think we were appreciated at the other company, but we were left to our own devices," Weiland said. "Having someone remind you of what you've committed to on a regular basis is productive and very helpful." Weiland said Perry Hurth, for example, is one of several managers available not just electronically, but face-to-face on a regular basis. And for Weiland, that kind of presence means always knowing what's expected of him and his team. "I'm an independent contractor, so I know what my responsibilities are," he said. "But I appreciate having a support system."

MANAGERS

The Emily Program

Lisa Diers, a registered dietician and yoga instructor at The Emily Program, said managers give employees freedom and flexibility. It was a common theme among her co-workers. "I don't feel any sense of micromanagement," said Diers, who has worked at the eating disorder clinic in St. Paul for five years. "There's a great sense of autonomy. I'm very self-driven. I like to know that I'm trusted and I can try something out and if it doesn't work out, I'm trusted that I won't continue it." Diers recently produced the clinic's first yoga DVD with the blessing of founder Dirk Miller, who gave her wide latitude to test the waters. Others who filled out the workplace survey said management "values our ideas," "empowers us to use our best judgment" and encourages employees to take time away from work to get more training.

DOERS

Kwik Trip

At Kwik Trip's annual year-end employee meetings, everybody who walks in the doors -- about 10,000 employees from more than 350 Kwik Trip stores in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin -- gets a handshake from the owner, president and CEO, Don Zeitlow. Many, in fact, are greeted by name, said local district leader Todd Williamson. "It's a family-owned business that really treats you like family. The culture that's created because of that, it just kind of breeds wanting to do well." But employees get more than that handshake and hello; they also receive above-average pay and benefits, sharing 40 percent of the company's profits. There's an extensive training program, as well as programs designed to help community members and employees facing disasters or medical hardships. The Families Helping Families program, for example, recently assisted a Kwik Trip employee whose house had burned, Williamson said. "It's just a positive culture, from the ownership on down."

MEANINGFULNESS

Eagle Ridge Academy

Education at Eagle Ridge isn't just about the 3 Rs. It's also about the "six pillars": citizenship, integrity, perseverance, honor, excellence and respect. Although the public charter school's academics are rigorous (and it has the test scores to prove it), the pillars were developed as a way to go a little further. Taught throughout the grades in the K-12 school, they're part of an effort to deliver "a traditional classical education that demands [students'] best in achievement, behavior and attitudes, and challenges them to achieve their highest potential," said John Howitz, executive director. Recently, Howitz stopped in a fourth-grade class where the teacher wrote the pillars on the board and asked the students for examples they'd seen that week of the pillars in action. "So someone would say, 'I saw Billy do this, and it's a model of good citizenship,'" Howitz said. "I was pretty moved seeing these guys nominate each other. ... I thought, 'Nice, we're not making robots, we're making thoughtful citizens.'"

ETHICS

The Container Store

Lots of stores claim to care about their employees, but The Container Store's employee-first culture isn't an empty promise. The proof is in its 10 percent employee turnover -- an almost unheard-of low rate in the retail industry, for which a 50 percent average is considered a conservative estimate. "We firmly believe that our employee is the No. 1 stakeholder," said John Urbin, general manager of the Edina store. "We take care of our employees, so they take better care of our customers, and, ultimately, all of the shareholders of the company benefit." The company wants its employees to have fun and feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It probably doesn't hurt that the pay, $11 per hour and up, is high by retail standards. The company's mutually beneficial attitude extends to its vendors and service professionals, Urbin said. "Why not take care of the people you work with? Then they'll take care of you," he said. "Unfortunately, that's not the way of the world, but we're showing that it can be."

OPPORTUNITIES

The Nerdery

New employees at The Nerdery are encouraged to put a slash at the end of their title and affix a "co-president" on the other side. It's the company's way of helping people to feel a sense of leadership toward the organization as a whole, and to take responsibility for helping to improve it. "It's something we take pretty seriously here, the idea of everybody not being just kind of pigeonholed into whatever role they happen to be in, but that they have the opportunity to shape the organization as they see fit," said CEO Mike Derheim. For example, the company recently created a department to focus on UX (user experience, in programmer parlance), when one of the developers said he felt the company should improve in that area. "He talked everybody into giving him the task of leading that charge," Derheim said. Annette Johnson, who has occupied several positions in the company, recently found a new niche herself: She helps others advance according to their interests and talents.

CLUED-IN MANAGEMENT

Pediatric Home Services

Susan Wingert, owner and president of Pediatric Home Services, prides herself on listening to her employees and helping them find ways to do their jobs better. "I think they feel a part of the overall management of the company," she said. She encourages that attitude through practices ranging from her open-door policy, to her full disclosure to employees about the company's finances, to the "Process Improvement Groups" that get employees together to solve problems, to the "Continuous Quality Improvement" forms through which employees can suggest ideas for improving outcomes or streamlining procedures. Of these, 95 percent are implemented, Wingert said. If she makes a decision she knows will be unpopular, Wingert makes sure to explain her reasoning. If mistakes happen, managers take the heat. Employees at Pediatric Home Services "figure we're paying attention to them," Wingert said. "And you know what? They're right. We do."

COMMUNICATION

Roger Fazendin Realtors

With only about 50 employees, this Wayzata-based company is relatively small but is the largest independent family-owned company in Minnesota. Still, the company puts a big emphasis on listening to staff and being open to new ideas. Some of that happens when a group of 11 people, including agents and staff, gets together every quarter to discuss topics and ideas that might help agents sell more houses and that might help improve the way the company operates. Such brainstorming sessions don't end there. There's a retreat every year aimed at increasing the connections among staff members. It's the kind of culture that has helped retain such strong talent as agent Shelley Geenen, who left Fazendin to try another company, only to later return to continue a career that's lasted nearly 20 years.

APPRECIATION

NetApp

Employees who go beyond the call of duty at NetApp rarely have to wonder whether their bosses notice the extra effort. They're likely to get a call from Vice Chairman Tom Mendoza from the company's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters, thanking them for their contributions. Mendoza recently phoned sales assistant Erin Milbrandt, for example, when she organized a successful golf tournament for customers and partners. "He's kind of a standout executive, who puts on a good example of how we should treat each other at NetApp," she said. That attitude trickles down to local managers, who are similarly careful to make employees feel appreciated. About a month ago, when a house belonging to an employee's parents in Iowa was damaged in a tornado, a team of co-workers from NetApp traveled to Iowa to help out, Milbrandt said. "Building strong relationships is really encouraged here, beyond just the working relationship."

WORK/LIFE FLEXIBILITY

Thrivent Financial

Thrivent's top management demonstrates its openness to work-life balance by example: A couple of the company's senior executives telecommute from homes on the West Coast. "People are able to see how it can work," said Karn Anderson, Human Resources business director. From there on down, some employees telecommute 100 percent, while others do so a portion of the time, or even just occasionally "to be home for the proverbial cable person who's coming between 9 and 4." About a third of the workforce is enrolled in a "Nine-Day Flex" program, which lets them take every other Friday off. Job sharing and part-time schedules are available, complete with pro-rated benefits, including health care. Start times are flexible, work weeks compressible, leaves of absence obtainable. And employees are offered the opportunity to take up to 20 paid hours a year to volunteer for the nonprofits of their choice. Last year, 45 percent of the workforce participated, putting in 77,396 hours.

TRAINING

Plunkett's Pest Control

All of Plunkett's new employees go through four weeks of classroom and on-the-job training, but that's hardly the end of their professional education. "We're going to put the tools in their hands and heads that they need to do this job safely, effectively and within the law," said technical director Jay Bruesch. So later during their first year, technicians attend a two-day "rookie camp" training session at the corporate office in Fridley. And every year, all employees attend four all-day training meetings, a two-day state-sponsored recertification seminar, and monthly all-day training meetings during the winter. Each person also pursues 10 hours of independent study. All of this training covers not only the latest available technical information on pests and pesticides, but also new regulations, safety practices and people skills. The idea, Bruesch said, is that "the more you know, the more confidence you have in yourself, the more confidence your clients have in you and, consequently, the more you enjoy your job."

BENEFITS

Microsoft

"We have the best benefit plan, I believe, on the planet," said Don Leeke, general manager of the software company's seven-state north central district. For starters, Microsoft employees and their families pay nothing for health care. That's right, nothing: no paycheck deduction, no deductible, no office co-pay, no prescription co-pay, nothing for medical, zilch for dental, nada for eye care. But wait -- there's more. Microsoft's "Get Fit" plan not only pays for its employees' gym memberships but offers annual credits for home-exercise equipment for employees who don't feel like hitting a gym. Going out of town on business and wondering who will watch the kids? Microsoft lines up a certified, insured, background-checked baby sitter. Employees in good standing receive stock equity when they're hired and again at their annual reviews. Hours and work location are extremely flexible. "This company has made a bet on our people, and that's why it's great to work here," Leeke said.

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