Krysy Winden of Minneapolis says she’s happily been employed for four years at the Container Store. General manager John Urbin says employees are “passionate about helping people get organized.”

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Awards: And the winners are...

  • June 17, 2012 - 5:43 AM



The company looks for ways to show appreciation for all its employees -- not just the ones pitching fastballs and hitting home runs, but all of them. "One label we use a lot around here is 'the Twins family,'" said Raenell Dorn, vice president of human resources and diversity. Everybody is welcome in company activities, including holiday and end-of-season parties and a recent walk for the American Heart Association in which participants beat the group's fund-raising goal. Employees who go the extra mile, from replacing a crying child's dropped ice-cream cone to helping a fan in cardiac distress, get recognized in the High Five program and on the Wall of Fame, where individual plaques are displayed in a high-traffic area. Even the break room is fancier than most: The tables have tablecloths and centerpieces.



Perhaps Proto Labs Inc. is an unlikely victor in this category. "We have a full array of benefits that are probably in the same bandwidth as many Minnesota companies," said Skip Bolton, vice president of culture for the Maple Plain-based manufacturer. The company's health plan is pretty standard, he explained. When pressed, however, Bolton eventually managed to rattle off a list of plum benefits: An employee stock purchase plan was introduced when the company went public in early 2012. This benefit proved popular when stock values nearly doubled on the first day of trading. Proto Labs also offers full tuition reimbursement for vocational training and undergraduate degrees, plus partial reimbursements for postgraduate work. Employees are even reimbursed for fancy yoga classes and cycling clinics, in addition to their usual gym memberships. Bolton characterized management as "pleasantly surprised" by the workforce's enthusiasm for their benefits. "I think it's more about everybody believing in the company," he said.

Clued-in senior management


One big part of what makes management clued in at Wingspan, which serves people with developmental disabilities, is the experience that comes with longevity. "I've been here 20 years, and our COO [Therese Davis] has been here 35 years," said Pat Moore, CEO and executive director. "So I'm like the newbie here." Clients, too, stay with Wingspan year after year; some for the whole 40 years of its existence. The 200 staffers serve 100 clients, get to know them very well "and are totally dedicated to making sure our needs are met," Moore said. Another sign of savvy management: training sessions that are actually fun. "Therese and her team have developed a quiz show," Moore said. "Teams compete to answer questions they're required to know. ... People are happy to be there, and they're really proud when they answer questions correctly."



It's not hard to pass the word around in an organization when everyone's in the same office. But most of the staff at Comfort Keepers consists of the 60 caregivers who offer home-based services to the ill and elderly. They spend almost all their time in the field working with clients, stopping into the office only once every couple of weeks, said Kelly Lindell, the company's owner. So management makes an extra effort to keep information flowing. Employees receive newsletters and attend staff meetings every other month. Meanwhile, Care Coordinator Pam Hauck and Office Manager Alyssa Deedrick keep in contact with staffers throughout the week using just about every medium short of smoke signals: phone calls, the postal service, e-mails and text messages. "We're really thankful for all the modern means of communication," Lindell said.



It's not surprising that employees appreciate their company's direction considering that, not so long ago, that direction made a dramatic turn from "down" to "up." The struggling company once called Northland Electric was almost bankrupt when a 2001 purchase turned it into Werner. Since then, the business has grown nearly 20 percent a year, said President Kevin Powell, from a $60 million operation to $200 million. About half of Werner's employees have been around long enough to see the change. "They know what trial and tribulation is," Powell said. "I think they count their blessings every day." Those blessings include a profit-sharing plan, minimal health care premium increases most years, and a wellness program that not only keeps employees healthy but saves the self-insured company $4 to $6 for every dollar invested, Powell said.



"The people who work here are those kinds of people," said John Urbin, general manager for the Container Store in Edina. "They're passionate about helping people get organized." Envision a tidy showroom packed with modular shelving, drawers and filing units. A place like this is a magnet for the orderly and efficient, conceded Urbin. But the company uses communication and self-assessment to keep the workforce extra-motivated, he said. Staffers are asked to rate their performance on everything -- even how quickly they unload shipments of new product. They're also invited to share tips and organizational insights with senior management. The result: an army of empowered, happy workers who can master any closet, office or storeroom. "We can design your custom space and send you home with it a few hours later," said Urbin. "That speaks to efficiency."



"Health care is a peculiar business," said Susan Wingert, CEO and founder of Pediatric Home Services. It's perhaps the only business where services are delivered long before the bill (and cost) are disclosed to the consumer. Insurance companies and other third-party payers further complicate the matter. "It's easy to cut corners," observed Wingert. But Pediatric Home Services doesn't cut corners, she said, because the company strives for honesty and transparency in all areas, especially its billing practices. The company doesn't want to startle anyone with surprise invoices. After all, it works with a population already prone to stress: medically fragile children and their families. Customer service agents provide parents with front-end financial counseling: what's billable to insurance, what isn't. Plus, refunds are always issued in the event of overpayment. "Billing is a huge deal," said Wingert. "We believe in doing it correctly."



It's hard to tell exactly whom the employees were thinking of when they praised the Edward Jones management: Did they mean the top executives at the home office in St. Louis, Mo.? Its regional management in St. Louis Park? The coaches who work one-on-one with new employees as trainers and mentors? Maybe all of the above, said Nick Lampi, regional leader and financial adviser. The company culture calls for everybody to "work together to succeed" by offering advice and whatever else they need. When Lampi started there in 1999, "I had someone who had been doing this for 30 years helping me along every route that I could ask for," he said. Also, the company "doesn't feel hierarchical," he said. "You can talk to anybody, regardless of what position they hold in the company. And, to me, that means a lot."



Education is a careerlong endeavor at Plunkett's Pest Control. First thing on the agenda for every new hire: one month of full-time training at headquarters in Fridley. No boring PowerPoint presentations here. "People are better experimental learners," said Plunkett's President Stacy O'Reilly. That's why the company infuses its course work with field learning as well as reading, lecturing and other traditional teaching techniques. Six months later new employees return for more hands-on learning at a two-day "rookie camp." Longtime employees continue to sharpen their expertise on bedbugs, carpenter ants and more by completing 60 to 80 hours of brush-up training every year. Bonus: Plunkett's also offers classes on fitness, personal finance, even safe driving. "We want this to be a family business, where families can spend their careers," insisted O'Reilly. "My responsibility is for training and coaching the whole."



No surprise that hospice workers find a strong sense of purpose in their daily work. "We derive meaning from our relationships with patients and families," said Pam Schaid, executive director for Hospice of the Twin Cities. "When we walk away at the end of the day, we truly feel like we've made somebody's life better." But Hospice of the Twin Cities enhances that sense of fulfillment by addressing the inherent challenges of hospice work. "We don't expect people will just move on," insisted Schaid. The company encourages staffers to attend biannual memorial services in honor of those who died in their care. The organization's professional caregivers also are invited to weekly meetings, a resource for training and emotional support. "We also try to have a little fun," added Schaid. "We go to Saints games. We go bowling. It reminds us there's still a lot of living going on."

New ideas


"Real estate can feel like a cutthroat, fend-for-yourself environment, because everyone is an independent contractor," said Perry Hurth, team leader of the Minneapolis Lakes office for Keller Williams Realty. But Keller Williams is different, continued Hurth, "because we are a profit-sharing company. As agents, we have a vested interest in helping others in the company succeed." This has paved the way for a culture of creativity and collaboration, explained Hurth. Top local agents often host classes for their greener colleagues, including this favorite -- the Killer Listing Presentation. Meanwhile, a hands-off approach explains why Keller Williams agents are so innovative with their marketing. Take, for instance, the personality-forward approach favored by Cotty Lowry, the Keller Williams agent whose graffiti-friendly billboards long have presided over Hennepin and Franklin Avenues in Minneapolis. "We don't care what his signs look like," insisted Hurth. "We try to stand behind our agents, not in front of them."

Work/life flexibility


"We run the company with three very important pillars," said Tony Oskooi, Bridge's owner and broker. The first pillar is respect. That means: "On a day that you don't want to work, then I don't want you to come to work," he explained. "Most people cherish that." (The other pillars are "Be professional and ethical" and "Customers are our priority.") When his own 17-year-old son needs him, "I'll drop everything and go take care of my son." He gives employees the same freedom to take care of family or other non-work obligations, as long as they can find someone to cover their duties. He says he even offers employees financial help if they need it, and that he and office manager Lindy Moryn are always available to talk. "I always call it a big family," Oskooi said.


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