When Jim and Dorothy Nelson entered the home health care business 33 years ago, they had one group home, one part-time office person and “two or three” care providers.

Today, the husband-and-wife team oversees an enterprise that consists of 56 group homes and nearly 1,000 employees.

And CEO Jim Nelson says the most critical decision he makes on a regular basis is who to hire.

“I’ve always said the most valuable resource we have is right between the ears of our employees,” Nelson said in a recent interview.

He must be on a hot streak because his employees helped ACR Homes achieve the No. 1 ranking in the Star Tribune’s Top Workplaces survey of large Minnesota companies. The honor is doubly significant in that this is ACR’s first entry in the five-year-old survey.

“We define ourselves every time we hire somebody,” Nelson said. “We work to select people who want to take care of other people. Our gift to them is to give them the opportunity to do what they have a passion for.”

ACR Homes is one of three organizations new to the top workplace list for companies with more than 500 employees.

The other two are St. David’s Center, a social-services provider that focuses on childhood development programs, at No. 21 and Canterbury Park, the horse racetrack and card casino, at No. 24.

“When you’re doing such valuable work in the lives of children and their families, there is an authentic belief that we couldn’t be engaged in more important work,” said Julie Sjordal, executive director of St. David’s, a Minnetonka nonprofit that offers programs ranging from early childhood education to work with children and older individuals with developmental disabilities. Sjordal calls St. David’s a “flat organization in terms of I don’t think I’m doing anything more important than the guy who cleans the building in the evening.”

Typical of the response of St. David’s employees responding to the workplace survey was one who wrote, “I love spending time with the girl I care for, and I feel like I am making a positive impact on her life.”

At Canterbury Park, entertainment is king.

“Canterbury is awesome to work for,” one employee commented on the survey. “They encourage each and every employee to strive to do their best while having fun at work.”

“Canterbury does not micromanage its employees,” said another.

There’s a reason for that, Canterbury CEO Randy Sampson said. “Our goals are quite simple — we want to provide enjoyment for our guests. It’s pretty difficult to create fun for your guests if your employees aren’t having fun as well, so we consciously work very hard to ensure our environment remains an enjoyable place to work,” Sampson said.

Other top workplaces among large companies range from Keller Williams Realty, a perennial top finisher, at No. 2, to Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose schools at No. 30. Among those in between are the Minnesota Twins (No. 6), Securian Financial Group (No. 13) and Whole Foods (No. 19).

The top 30 large companies include 10 private firms, nine nonprofits, seven public companies, two cooperatives and two school districts.

By area of specialty, health and developmental care is the largest category represented on the list with eight organizations, followed by financial services with six.

ACR Homes places a heavy emphasis on communication.

“Eighty-five to 95 percent of what we do is based on the suggestions of our employees,” said Jim Nelson, citing a successful company-owned coffee shop where clients and neighbors gather daily. That idea came up from the ranks.

“If someone has an idea, we always get back to them,” Nelson said. “It gives employees a positive ownership attitude.”