One is a global conglomerate whose reach affects the human food chain. The other is a freeway stop at the end of an exit ramp for coffee, gas and snacks.

But Cargill Inc. and Kwik Trip have one thing in common: Their employees love to work there. So much so that Cargill and Kwik Trip placed second and third, respectively, in the Star Tribune's annual ranking of top large-company workplaces in Minnesota.

Both are new to the list this year, which ranks Keller Williams Realty as the top large-company workplace for the second year in a row.

The list, compiled by WorkplaceDynamics, includes companies that are public, such as manufacturers Graco Inc. and 3M, and those that are private, such as Starkey Laboratories. There are nonprofits on the list, such as Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare, and a Native American government branch in SMSC Gaming Enterprise, which operates Mystic Lake and Little Six casinos. Financial services firms include Bremer Bank, Securian Financial Group, ING Direct and U.S. Bancorp. General Mills, a perennial winner of workplace awards from national publications such as Fortune and Bloomberg Business Week, ranks in our top 10 for the second consecutive year.

Of the top 25 large companies, just 10 are repeats from the 2010 list.

The survey results are based on anonymous responses to questionnaires by the Minnesota-based employees of the companies.

What makes a good work environment?

"You want something of value to people, a mission," said Mick Sheppeck, an associate professor of management at St. Thomas University Opus College of Business. "You want information from the senior guys about what the heck is going on. You want a supervisor who helps you do what you are supposed to do and you want employees involved in problem solving and decisionmaking."

At Cargill, employees cited the importance of top-down communication and praised CEO Gregory Page as a visionary who created an environment that inspires innovation, honors fairness and offers the ability to move ahead.

Said Vicki Li, internal communications specialist at Cargill: "There's a lot of freedom -- freedom to make your choices, to challenge, to bring something new to the table."

A family feeling

"Cargill makes you feel like you are part of a family, not just another number of a spread sheet," wrote one employee on the confidential questionnaire.

Another employee who previously worked at a major bank said, "The environment is dynamic and innovation is always a goal. ... I felt like I stepped off a 747 on autopilot and into an F-16."

Page acknowledges that a satisfied workforce gives Cargill a competitive and strategic edge.

"I spend time in the world's capitals with valued customers. You can't have satisfied customers without engaged employees," Page said in a May interview.

Employees say they also value working at Cargill because of the company's ethical standards, commitment to volunteer work and balance between work and family time.

"Cargill is a pillar in our community," said one employee. "I like to work for a company that is well respected and is visible in the volunteering community.'' Page, whose small-town North Dakota roots are evident in his relaxed demeanor, understands that sentiment.

"People want to be proud of the place where they work," he said. "There needs to be a predictability, a constancy that they can rely on. We can't be a different Cargill in different places in the world."

With $107 billion in sales last year, Cargill is the largest privately held company in the world, according to Forbes magazine. It buys, processes and distributes agricultural commodities; provides food ingredients, including livestock; and offers financial services to its customers. Cargill employs 131,000 people worldwide, with 5,877 in Minnesota.

At Kwik Trip, employee loyalty and retention are driven, in part, by a benefits package that includes profit sharing. Under the plan, 40 percent of pretax profits are distributed to full-time and part-time employees. Last year, that resulted in a 9 percent year-end bonus plus a 4.5 percent company contribution to individual 401(k) plans. Full-time employees also get a cut of Kwik Trip's real estate holdings in the form of shares after five years of service.

"We are appreciated. There are great benefits, great pay, opportunities with great leaders and co-workers," said one Kwik Trip employee.

"We have no history of layoffs," said John McHugh, manager of corporate communications and leadership development. "Our turnover rate is less than 25 percent, which is pretty incredible for the convenience industry, where turnover is nearly 100 percent."

And most of Kwik Trip's management team was promoted from within. Vice president of operations Greg Olson, of Winona, Minn., started as a store leader. Todd Williamson also started as a store leader and now is a district leader for the Twin Cities region.

Another feature favored by employees is scheduling flexibility, including paid personal time off. Kwik Trip also allows employees, such as part-time college students, to work at different stores so when they are home from college they can work in their hometown Kwik Trip.

Desirée Goret works at the Kwik Trip in Eagan when she's not attending Concordia University in Moorhead, Minn. "When I first got the job, I was just so excited to go to work,'' Goret said. "I was even having dreams about Kwik Trip."

Kwik Trip, based in La Crosse, Wis., was founded in 1965 and operates in three states -- Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

It has 9,800 employees in 407 stores across its system, with 100 stores and 2,287 employees in Minnesota. It also operates under the Kwik Star banner.

Green initiatives

Kwik Trip also emphasizes having an environmentally compatible workplace. Its green initiatives range from "Milk-in-a-Bag" to reduce the package waste of milk containers to electric-car rechargers and recycled car wash water, which is sprayed on the undercarriage of vehicles.

Word must be out about worker satisfaction at Kwik Trip -- last year the chain received more than 90,000 applications for 700 openings.

"We see everything under the sun," McHugh said. "We have college grads, we have high school grads. A lot are full time. Some start as part time and never leave."

Happy workers can affect the bottom line.

"An engaged workforce has a financial return on investment," said Sheppeck. "If the workforce is more satisfied, it will meet more goals."

Star Tribune staff writer Katy Read contributed to this story. David Phelps • 612-673-7269


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