Diane Bjorkman, Gentle Transitions

When Diane Bjorkman learned she ranked first in leadership among executives of small companies in our Top Workplaces survey, her first response was, “What about Bill?”

Bjorkman and her husband, Bill Lehman, for 11 years have co-owned and co-led Gentle Transitions, a firm that manages home moves for senior citizens. They are living a dream many married couples have had: to run a business they love that suits their complementary skills. Diane, who worked as a program director in senior homes, handles marketing, while Bill, a former options trader, keeps track of operations and finances.

“We’ve been in sync about any of the hard decisions, whether it is supporting staff in salary increases or how we handle a complaint from a client,” Bjorkman said.

Their business is built from a simple premise. Many older people find that moving is more difficult than it was when they were young. They don’t have the strength or stamina to dismantle and set up their stuff. Even more challenging: Most seniors are downsizing, moving to a smaller home that forces emotionally difficult choices about longtime possessions.

“I always say their lives are literally and figuratively being dismantled in front of them,” Lehman said. “They’re seeing things being packed into boxes, and it’s very hard for them to see it coming back out.”

The company’s 78 employees, nearly all part-timers who schedule their own workdays, have one goal: to make a client feel at home on the very first night in a new residence.

When a job comes in, the couple assign one of their 16 move managers to visit, assess what the client owns and loves, and find out where it needs to go in the new home. On the day of the move, the move manager leads a team of Gentle Transitions staffers, the number of which can vary depending on how much stuff there is, who pack everything, then unpack it at the new home. They put pictures back on walls, hook up TVs and computers, and position furniture as the client had decided earlier. A moving company hired separately by the client handles the actual transportation.

Until last year, when a spurt of new activity caught them by surprise, Gentle Transitions had never advertised for workers. Bjorkman said the company attracts “an amazingly high caliber of individual.” “A lot of them have had careers and are coming to this position for the reward of helping,” she said.

They’ve built a system that allows all employees to see the schedule of moves, sometimes as many as nine or 10 happening in a day, and sign up to help.

For staff members, the trade-off for making one’s own schedule is they have to be there when they say they will be.

“Our work is like the mail. Rain, sleet or snow that person is moving,” Bjorkman said. “We have to show up. The people we tend to attract have that work ethic.”

After a move, clients fill out a handwritten survey, which Bjorkman scans and e-mails to each member of a team. The couple publish a quarterly newsletter and gather the staff for a picnic once a year and in smaller, impromptu gatherings. The entire staff knows that they enter a client’s life at a difficult moment that’s usually filled with anxiety and often a sense of loss.

“People are trusting us with …” Bjorkman started to say before pausing, then Lehman finished her thought: “Their lifetime.”

Jim Nelson, ACR Homes

Jim Nelson and his wife, Dorothy, started their specialized-care residences company with just one home and three employees in the early 1980s. Today, with more than 50 homes from Eden Prairie to Stillwater, Jim still leans on Dorothy for help with the big decisions.

When he learned that employees’ ratings had placed him atop our ranking of large-company executives, he insisted on sharing credit with his wife.

“I have the emotional drive and intensity. Dorothy has a much calmer spirit and presence,” Nelson said. “I think I have learned some of that from her, to be calmer and more present.”

Together, they created a work environment that gives enormous responsibility and autonomy to workers, encourages them to float new ideas and recognizes their accomplishments in front of colleagues and clients.

Nelson said that his single best talent is being “really good at hiring people.”

About two-thirds of the staff are part-timers, chiefly young adults in or just out of college who are building experience as they plan careers in medical, health service and allied fields. Nelson looks for people who are interested in serving others. The company’s clients range in age from young children to people in their 80s and 90s. Some have health conditions or disabilities that merely require ACR staff to help prepare meals and do housekeeping. Others require far more care.

Nelson quotes studies that show people who help others gain more from the work than the people they are helping. And he said, “There’s nothing more invigorating than to work with an idealistic student who wants to help and we have the environment where they can help.”

But he also encourages employees to keep a positive frame of mind and requires some to send him a daily e-mail with at least two upbeat observations from the day, one about a colleague and one about a client.

“Personal care is not easy. There’s a lot of hard work, but there’s a lot of joy in helping people who really depend on you,” Nelson said. “I typically tell our staff that, apart from your family, this will be the greatest impact you can have on someone’s life, what you do here with the folks you support. You can make your day heaven or hell depending on your attitude, what you focus on and how you talk.”

Once a year, the company gathers employees for an awards ceremony in front of clients and their families. Nelson said the biggest part of the event is the preparation done by the managers, when they hear the stories about the good work employees have done.

“We talk about value a lot when it comes to our residents,” Nelson said. “But we also value our staff.”

Doug Cole, Cole’s Salon and Spa

Before Doug Cole sat down to reflect on the reasons his company’s employees rated his leadership skills so highly, he called five of his top managers to his office. “This is about what you have done more than me,” he told them.

He later explained, “They constantly are going and learning how to listen differently and build trust.”

In its 35th year, the five-unit chain of salons in the Twin Cities’ southern suburbs is going stronger than ever. Cole had been cutting hair at the Dayton’s children’s salon in Southdale for eight years when, in 1979, he said he “started to have a different vision.” He wanted to run a business clients didn’t grow out of, where they stayed around and where employees could prosper.

Today, among the ways he measures his company’s success is by the number of people — 52 out of 335 — who have worked there more than 20 years. Another measure: the financial independence of his employees. All are automatically enrolled in the company’s 401(k) program and many join the employee stock ownership plan.

“One of my goals was to see how many millionaires we could create in the hairstyling business,” he said. “It’s known for a lack of abundance.”

His colleagues said they value the “abundance mentality” Cole created, which plays out on the salon floor in a practice that hair stylists shouldn’t compete with one another for clients. “There’s plenty of guests out there for everyone,” says Trish Storhoff, who manages the company’s original location in Burnsville. “Doug is a generous leader and he wants his entire team to be successful.

But while Cole and his team relieve stress in some aspects of work, they create an element of tension by requiring employees to assess themselves every six weeks and set new goals. Some of the goals can be work-related, such as improving client retention, while others can be personal, such as finishing a book, learning a new sport or doing something special for their children.

“We want people to be happy,’’ Cole said. “And I think people are happiest when they’re achieving.”

It’s a tricky balance, Cole said, because creating unrealistic goals sets people up for failure. The company helps by providing ongoing educational opportunities, even out-of-state trips to conferences, and equipping each location with libraries filled with books and DVDs on many subjects.

The company’s vision statement, he points out, is employee-centered, focused on creating “happy, balanced lives.” Asked why he didn’t write a statement that was focused on clients, as many businesses do, Cole said, “I’ve found that if people aren’t happy, they don’t take care of the client.”

He said he expects his staffers to be “highly skilled” and take advantage of the opportunities the firm provides. “I don’t think anybody is happy or fulfilled if they’re not good at their craft,” he said. “People don’t stay at Cole’s because of the money, though I think we pay better than most. People stay for what they are becoming.”

Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241