Top awards: Best in direction, managing, appreciation and more

  • Updated: June 16, 2013 - 6:59 AM
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Slot supervisor Osbert Austin, left, and Jennifer Hallstrom, slot service specialist, worked on one of the machines at Mystic Lake.

Photo: Joey McLeister • Special to the Star Tribune,

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DIRECTION: Keller Williams Realty

It probably doesn’t hurt that the real-estate market is currently in an upswing. But Keller Williams agents who withstood harder times in recent years “are very well positioned right now,” said regional director Todd Butzer. The company helps them succeed by encouraging cooperation, teamwork, training and financial transparency. “So while the nature of real estate can seem very competitive amongst agents, our agents and leadership teams do not work like that.” Agents share listings, advice, suggestions. Educational offerings are open to everyone in the industry. Recently, Butzer asked an agent who had moved from a competitor why he had chosen Keller Williams. “He said, ‘It wasn’t your economic model, it wasn’t your education. It was the mojo in the office.’ ” And despite the employees’ enthusiasm, the mojo isn’t all about work. “We’re one of the few companies that is not afraid to say we really believe it’s God and family first and business second,” Butzer said.

MANAGERS: Ebenezer Society

At Ebenezer Society, which provides housing and services for seniors, everyone from top leaders on down strives to treat each other with dignity and respect, said Mary Swartz, vice president of human resources. “When we hire managers, we make sure that we have a good fit with our culture, somebody who can relate to our values of dignity, integrity, service and compassion.” Sometimes those new hires are employees who’ve been through the company’s management training program; last year, three of the program’s graduates were placed in management positions. Employees also have opportunities to take classes on topics such as emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, self-esteem. “They’re classes and skills that make people more effective as human beings,” Swartz said. “So we know that translates to more effective employees.” Consequently, Swartz was not surprised when one employee commented, “My manager wants me to grow.”

NEW IDEAS: Magnet 360

Employees are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate at Magnet 360, a marketing strategy and technology provider. “Everybody is working together to support the greater goal, and a lot of good ideas come out of that,” said Managing Partner Matt Meents. “We really want input from everyone.” Staffers can post ideas on an internal network, where others can respond to them publicly. Another system encourages employees to participate in setting goals, “the five to seven most important things we need to accomplish for the quarter.” The company calls them “rocks” based on motivational author Stephen Covey’s metaphor about placing rocks, sand, pebbles and water in a jar (the rocks go in first, then you can fit the other stuff around them). Executives set companywide rocks, then each department within the organization sets its own individual rocks to match. “Our goal is that once these initiatives get completed, they’re kind of solved once and for all,” Meents said.

CLUED-IN SENIOR MANAGEMENT: Magenic

Transparency is important at Magenic, said CEO and co-founder Greg Frankenfield. “We use every bit of technology at our disposal to communicate what we’re doing today, what we’re doing tomorrow, what our direction is.” Management holds town hall meetings to talk — and answer questions — about the organization’s progress, important projects, problems that need solving. “I also think one of the keys is a healthy dose of humility,” Frankenfield said. That includes leaders admitting when they’ve made mistakes, “letting (employees) know you’ve screwed up and how you’re going to fix it.” Take, for example, a company initiative to create a formal career-development ladder. “It took a long time to realize we needed it, then it took a long time to implement it,” he said. Management issued an apology, the project finally got going, and “our retention has improved dramatically as a result of actually having a career path and options available for them,” he said.

MEANINGFULNESS: Right at Home

How do you create a top workplace when most of your 250 employees don’t actually work in the office? That’s the challenge for Right at Home, which provides nonmedical services for seniors in their homes. One way is to help people “feel like they’re part of something bigger,” said CEO and owner Paul Blom. Employees can easily see that they’re helping improve individual lives, so as far as “meaningfulness” goes, Right at Home enjoys “a bit of an unfair advantage in that our work is, in and of itself, meaningful.” But Blom strives to amplify that feeling by emphasizing the bigger picture: They’re “making a difference in the lives of all the elderly people in their community.” To help build company solidarity, he gathers employees for social outings to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater and other fun places. And “we call everyone on their birthday, even if their birthday is on a Saturday or a Sunday,” he said.

DOERS: Renters Warehouse

The real-estate downturn revitalized the rental industry, said Kevin Ortner, president and chief operating officer of Renters Warehouse, the largest property manager in the state. The company has adopted technology that lets it manage thousands of units with the same effort that just hundreds used to require. For example, if a tenant is late paying rent, “instead of one rent collector making 50 calls a day,” software can shoot out an automatic e-mail, letter or auto-dialed call. “The biggest thing we do is encourage innovation,” Ortner said. “We want everyone to be able to think for themselves, not have to run it up the flagpole just to get something done. That has a lot to do with our ability to get a lot of things done in a short amount of time.”

APPRECIATION: Colle+McVoy

“Our employees are our most important asset,” said Christine Fruechte, president and CEO of Colle+McVoy. “We want them to know that.” The Minneapolis-based advertising agency expresses these affections via a steady stream of events, celebrations and tokens — monthly birthday parties and biweekly meetings where promotions and other successes are recognized. More visibly, cheeky Lego trophies are regularly dispersed to winners of the company’s in-house McVE awards. “If you have a lot of McVE’s at your desk, you’re obviously appreciated by your peers,” said Fruechte with a laugh. Other thank-you’s include “Beer Bike Fridays” (involving indoor bicycling plus the consumption of beer every week at 3 p.m.) and extra-generous holiday gifts (last year everyone unwrapped an iPad mini). Best of all, Colle+McVoy enjoys some sweet digs on the top two floors of the Wyman Building in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, with a rooftop deck perfect for feting hard workers. Think Twins openers and private rock concerts.

ETHICSBell State Bank & Trust

Every year, every employee at Bell State receives $1,000 to invest in the cause of his or her choice — anything from an official nonprofit organization to “a neighbor or a single mom who is maybe going through a tough time,” said President Michael Solberg. This year, the Pay It Forward program went a step further: employees were all allowed to selected a favorite customer to give $1,000, also to help a worthy cause. Altogether, the program invested $1.5 million this year and more than $3 million over its five-year history. The company’s owners focus on long-term benefits for employees and customers, not quarterly earnings pressures, Solberg said. “We want to show our customers and our community that we’re very committed to being great partners.”

BENEFIT: SMSC Gaming Enterprise

SMSC Gaming Enterprise is the parent of Mystic Lake Casino Hotel and Little Six Casino, both owned and operated by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. At SMSC headquarters in Prior Lake (on the same campus as Mystic Lake and Little Six) employees enjoy many of the same lifestyle perks you find with other big employers: deep discounts for onsite child care, a full-service fitness center outfitted with racquetball courts and a swimming pool (with employee memberships running just $25 per month). Less common are the company’s onsite health clinics offering full medical, dental, vision, physical therapy and chiropractic services — as well as a handy pharmacy. The medical clinic was installed in 2007 as a convenience for employees, explained Sean Canney, compensation and benefits manager for SMSC. “Otherwise [employees] would have to take time off or may defer some services,” he said. Sure, the onsite clinics help SMSC manage other interests — Canney specifically mentioned treating workers injured on the job — but they also provides for a healthier, happier workforce.

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