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Continued: Small companies: Employees come first at The Container Store

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 23, 2011 - 11:48 AM

By now, The Container Store, a national retailer of storage and container products, must have a shelf, box or drawer for the growing number of awards recognizing it as a top workplace.

Whether you're talking to John Urbin, general manager of the Edina location, or reading the words of oft-quoted co-founder and CEO Kip Tindell, the company attributes much of its success to an "employees-first" culture in place since the Texas-based chain opened its first store in 1978.

The philosophy is simple: If you take care of workers, they will take care of customers -- and that will take care of the business and shareholders.

Something must be working: Less than three years after the Edina store opened in October 2008, The Container Store placed third among 40 small companies, those with 150 or fewer employees in Minnesota, in the Star Tribune's 100 Top Workplaces 2011. With 50 employees, the Edina store qualifies as a small employer in the survey, although the 49-store chain employs more than 4,000 people across the country.

Small employers range from companies in real estate (No. 1 ranked Roger Fazendin Realtors) to health care (Valley Rehabilitation Services) to technology (NetApp), to education (Eagle Ridge Academy) and professional services (BWBR Architects).

For The Container Store, local recognition comes atop its ranking as one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" in Fortune magazine's annual list a dozen years running.

"You hear from everyone in our building that they love their job," said Urbin, with The Container Store for 10 years, first in Chicago, then managing a high-volume New York City store for three years before moving to Minnesota to open the Edina store. "The employee is the No. 1 stakeholder and everything else falls into place." The privately held retailer had sales of $650 million in 2010.

Training and pay are well above industry average -- 263 training hours for first-year full-timers and average annual pay of $44,000 for a full-time sales clerk, according to Fortune.

"We don't have an operations manual," Urbin said. "Retail is far too situational. You hire smart people, give them a set of guidelines, and as long as you use those 99.9 percent of the time, everybody is thrilled with the results."

Urbin said the Edina store received 1,500 applications before it opened. With some hiring likely later in the summer, the store may have 60 to 65 employees when its busy fall season hits.

Angie's Kettle Corn, ranked No. 21, strives to maintain a comfortable work environment even as the rapidly growing Mankato company gains a national foothold. With distribution in 45 states, a January appearance on Martha Stewart's TV show and recognition as the 10th best-selling popped popcorn product in the country, sales are, well, popping.

Dan and Angie Bastian, who started making kettle corn as a weekend sideline in 2000, expect to reach 140 to 150 employees this summer. They know, she said, that working on the production floor is hardly glamorous.

"We know how hard it is," Angie Bastian said. "I think our employees appreciate that both Dan and I have done it, too, and we respect them and the work they do because we've done it."

The company brought in 100 new employees over about two months last year to ramp up for the Twins' first season at Target Field. Willing to admit what they didn't know, the couple first hired human resources director Colette Drager, who Angie Bastian said had corporate and consulting experience.

"We were in over our heads," Dan Bastian said. When hiring that many people, "you have to have someone with experience and perspective to handle it properly.''

The business offers opportunities to advance, Dan Bastian said. This summer, Angie Bastian said, they've turned over their events program, which the couple used to run, to a college student in charge of hiring and operations for the firm's tent at fairs and festivals.

"Dan and Angie truly care about and give positive feedback to their employees,'' one worker wrote on the confidential survey. "We are allowed to put family first and have flexibility in our schedule.''

Companies such as 90-year-old, employee-owned BWBR Architects in St. Paul, also were among this year's Top Workplaces. In addition to architecture, the 113-employee firm offers interior design and master and strategic planning services.

"We're not seen as just one piece of the puzzle; we're seen as part of the family," said James Lockwood, marketing coordinator. "There's a real familiar culture at BWBR. We care about you as much as a person, if not more, than we do as an employee."

The firm encourages employees to make connections outside their specialities, he said. The internal teamwork and relationships with long-time clients such as churches, nonprofits and justice and corrections agencies helped the firm weather the recession relatively well. It made 14 hires in the past year.

Freelance writer Todd Nelson writes a weekly small business column for the Star Tribune. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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