It has been a rocky year at UCare.

Last summer, the Minneapolis health insurance company lost a state contract that represented half of its $3 billion annual revenue. With a newly named CEO leading the charge, the company sued the state and lost. By year’s end, UCare had cut 20 percent of its workforce, or about 250 jobs.

Then came word this spring that UCare planned to merge with Fairview Health Services.

Yet judging from comments from a dozen UCare employees, the tumult didn’t send them into a rabbit hole of fear, bitterness or despair. There was shock and confusion, but a surprising number of employees were sad — not necessarily for themselves, but for the 350,000 low-income individuals and families who would need to find a new health plan.

The key was hearing swiftly and frequently from UCare’s top managers.

“It wasn’t just in an e-mail,” said Matt Bappe, a process improvement analyst. “It was multiple in-person meetings, a special website set up on our intranet with frequently asked questions and links and news media stories, positive or negative. Full disclosure the whole time.”

The approach helped UCare land on the Star ­Tribune’s list of Minnesota’s Top Workplaces for the seventh consecutive year. Ranked No. 14 among large companies, UCare is one of 10 organizations that have made the list every year since the employee-based survey conducted by Workplace Dynamics began.

Communication gets more difficult as companies grow and their workplaces get more far-flung. At companies most admired by their workers, words such as transparency, straight talk and easy access to leadership aren’t just management buzzwords.

“We make it a very strong policy that every time somebody offers a suggestion, we get back to them,” said ACR Homes founder and CEO Jim Nelson, whose company provides housing and services for people with physical and developmental disabilities.

ACR Homes tops the large-company list of Top Workplaces for a second time this year. Its nearly 1,100 employees cover a diversity of duties, and range from hands-on care managers and physical therapists to claims administrators who must understand government regulations for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The staff works with vulnerable adults and children at 50 homes across the five-county metro area and western Wisconsin — and are needed evenings, weekends, holidays and overnights. Ensuring a stable and motivated workforce is key.

ACR’s corporate culture is embedded with the notion that “the best ideas come from between employees’ ears,” said Gene Leistico, ACR Homes’ chief operating officer. “We’ve always had a ‘flat-structure mentality.’ ”

C.H. Robinson, a Fortune 500 company that specializes in global logistics management and that ranked No. 24 on this year’s list, uses a similar approach to keep needless layers of management out of workers’ way. With more than 13,500 employees around the world, “employee empowerment” is particularly important for its sales force, which must ensure that its clients’ products arrive at their destinations safely and on time.

“The logistics supply chain is dynamic,” said Angie Freeman, C.H. Robinson’s chief human resources officer. “Things change daily, hourly and sometimes within the hour. We need to be agile and fleet-of-foot to respond to customers’ needs and make an impact.”

New employees at the Eden Prairie-based company have a long training period and are paired with a coach who helps ensure the job is a good fit. Most turnover happens in the first 18 months, Freeman said. After that, people tend to stay. The average tenure of a general manager is 16 years.

At Edina Realty, No. 10 on the large-companies list, agents work as independent contractors. But the company also has about 500 employees. Many are college and high school students who work part-time, and the company offers tuition reimbursement and other incentives plus considerable on-the-job training.

About half of the active agents and employees have been with the organization for 10 or more years, said Colleen Christ, Edina Realty’s vice president of human resources. More than 1,150 invitations were sent out to Edina Realty’s recent “Legends Luncheon,” an annual celebration for those with a decade or more in the trenches.

The company also takes feedback seriously, Christ said. A WorkplaceDynamics survey a few years ago revealed that employees wanted the company to provide more technology and training, and to move away from “the brick and mortar mentality.” In the past year, the company has moved to cloud-based tools, upped its education programs and remodeled its corporate and sales offices to reduce overall square footage.

A few weeks ago at UCare, dozens of workers were writing notes of appreciation to a sign emblazoned with the slogan, “Stronger Together.”

UCare CEO Eppel will hang the sign in his office, which he relocated from the third floor to the first to be closer to other leaders and UCare employees.

Eppel, the insurer’s first new CEO in two decades, was in his third week on the job and sitting in an orientation meeting when the call came from the state, delivering what felt like a stunning blow. Eppel joked that he could have won an Academy Award for his performance after he returned to the meeting.

Eppel and his top managers “kicked into high gear very, very fast,” he said, and laid out some guiding principles: They would be as open as possible and not sugarcoat the news. They knew layoffs would be coming but vowed to be “fair and equitable,” give advance notice, and provide outplacement and other services. Laid-off leaders wouldn’t have to lay off their own staff.

“We took a transparent position with our employees to say, here’s what happened, here’s what we’re doing about it,” he said.

Eppel speaks in euphemisms about “the events of last summer” or the “bump in the road.”

When friends seek to console him about his challenging first year, Eppel said his response is the same: It’s all good.

“I wouldn’t have wished this on myself or the organization,” he said. “But we’ve come out of it in a really good position.”

 

Staff writer Patrick Kennedy contributed to this story.