Core values and a sense of mission — plus elliptical exercise machines on the job and regular doses of hedgehog-inspired fun — are among the ingredients that helped small companies earn recognition as Star Tribune Top Workplaces in 2014.

Such employee-focused elements also drive growth, according to Diane Bjorkman, co-owner of Gentle Transitions, which helps downsizing seniors pack and relocate from their longtime homes. The company placed second among 40 small businesses recognized this year as Top Workplaces.

"We are very much in sync on our values and how we believe our employees want to be treated," said Bjorkman, who hired 18 employees last year, to total 78. "We shower them with praise. We're extremely passionate about the service we provide and have tended to attract unusually dedicated, committed people who want to be part of what we do."

Businesses serving seniors, from home care services to senior living facilities, accounted for three of the top 10 small businesses.

Others included tech companies such as Intertech, which claimed the No 1. spot this year, up from No. 8 last year; Magnet360, No. 3 this year, down from No. 1 a year ago, and software firm Calabrio, No. 14 this year.

Health care providers including Valley Rehabilitation Services, No. 5, and Physicians' Diagnostics & Rehabilitation Group, No. 13, rounded out the list of professional services firms and manufacturers.

A shared passion for the mission of serving the frail elderly has helped Bluestone Physician Services (No. 4) become a Top Workplace, CEO Todd Stivland said. Bluestone's doctors and nurse practitioners provide customized medical care in assisted-living, memory care and group home settings, working as teams but with a degree of autonomy.

"We recruit people who like to work independently and give them space to work without a lot of red tape," Stivland said. "We don't have a lot of hierarchy. We respect everybody and their ability to get their jobs done. It's the way I wanted to be treated when I was an employee."

Carefully honed values along with a new business strategy have fueled rapid growth for PowerObjects, No. 6, a leading provider of business customer relationship management systems, said Jim Sheehan, chief operating officer and principal.

"If I could say more than 100 percent, I would," Sheehan said of the contribution PowerObjects' values have made to its growth. "We're only as good as our people. If we don't have something that binds and holds our people together, it falls apart really quickly."

Sheehan and PowerObjects' CEO and founder Dean Jones crafted their list of core values — including "think team," "love what you do," and "do the right thing" — in 2007. At the same time, the company adopted a "fanatical focus" on one product, Microsoft Dynamics CRM. The company, with 87 Minnesota employees among 142 worldwide, made 27 hires last year and 60 already this year, Sheehan said.

At Octane Fitness, No. 37, which manufactures zero-impact elliptical training machines for health clubs and consumers, president and CEO Dennis Lee said employees help leadership create the company's culture. A big part of that is hiring "great people who are committed to exercise and to our goals of being the best in the world at zero-impact exercise," Lee said.

Employees have the opportunity to exercise that commitment on Octane Fitness machines at the company's health club-like headquarters in Brooklyn Park, Lee said, and at home on a machine of their own, for which they become eligible after three months of employment.

"If you use it at home, you understand it," Lee said. "You're gaining experience that will help in improving the innovation or serving the customer better. We treat everybody like a business owner and they run their part of the business like that," Lee said.

The acquisition that created Intereum, No. 40, a Herman Miller commercial office dealership in Eagan, has prompted makeovers of the work space and the culture, both of which are now more open, owner Matt Sveen said.

A recognition program, launched at employees' suggestion, bestows the Hedgie award to three employees every quarter, Sveen said. The award takes its name from the Intereum mascot, Hedgie the Hedgehog, inspired by the Hedgehog Concept in Jim Collins' influential business book, "Good to Great."

"I've dressed up as a hedgehog for company meetings," said Sveen, adding that the last couple of years have seen the addition of Hedgie Hours, featuring adult beverages and taco bars on the last Friday of every month. "We've been blessed that we've been able to attract a lot of talented people who are hard working and really dedicated to our clients."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is