Best companies provide care, leadership and fun

100119Stamp41There were nearly 20,000 employees from 303 companies who participated in our 17th annual 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon survey. It might not have been the best year for business, with a bad economy hanging on, but you wouldn’t know it by how our 2010 winners treated their employees.

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There were nearly 20,000 employees from 303 companies who participated in our 17th annual 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon survey. It might not have been the best year for business, with a bad economy hanging on, but you wouldn’t know it by how our 2010 winners treated their employees. What makes a great place to work? Robust health care plans were important to being a Best Company. This group offers substantial premium offsets and a surprisingly high number of alternative care and wellness plans. It’s also about inspired leadership, collaboration and caring, along with a healthy dose of fun. Congratulations to the class of 2010!

Teamwork and laughter define the Stamp-Connection’s office culture, not to mention president John Clark’s purple suspenders.

It’s challenging enough to keep employees happy and workplace morale high during the best of times. But what about in the worst of times? How do companies manage to remain great places to work in the worst economy since the Great Depression?

When Oregon Business sent out its 17th annual workplace satisfaction surveys last fall, markets were beginning to recover but job losses and benefit cuts were still rampant. Many of the state’s top companies had endured two terrible years of cutbacks and downsizing. Yet nearly 20,000 employees responded to the survey, and while overall scores were down, largely because of shrinking benefits packages, satisfaction levels were surprisingly high for the companies that made our 2010 list of the best companies to work for in Oregon.

How did they do it?

The first thing you notice when you walk through the front door of the light manufacturing company Stamp-Connection (No. 3, Small) is Frankie, president John Clark’s endearing attention-seeking dog. The next thing you notice is a faint acrid smell of something burning or being melted. But no one seems to mind the smell. The 15 employees who work out of Stamp-Connection’s 3,500-square-foot space in downtown Gresham seem to overwhelmingly enjoy their work. The workplace bustles with cheerful camaraderie. Wages are not particularly high and days off are rare, but they receive 100% paid health coverage, an aggressive 401(k) plan matched by the company, dental and life insurance coverage, and two 3% raises per year.

Office manager Serene Brown, who has worked at Stamp-Connection for five years, says there is “no comparison” between her current job and past ones, including a stint at a different rubber stamp maker that failed during the last recession. “These other companies I worked for weren’t structured in a way to allow employees to succeed,” she says. “The benefits went to the owner first and rarely to the employees, and people resented it. If we don’t take care of the employees, they won’t take care of our customers.”

Top: Kae Saechao fills an order at the Stamp-Connection. Middle: employee Chris Emerick (right) and Alpha High student Ricky Ramirez. Bottom: filling an order.

In the third room back, where the most intense manufacturing is done, three-year employee Kae Saechao begins by saying he considers his workplace “a pretty chill place.” Pressed for specifics, he shrugs shyly and says, “This company turned my life around.”

Stamp-Connection has a long relationship with Alpha High School, an alternative high school in Gresham for troubled teenagers. Saechao is one of several Alpha graduates who have earned a full-time job at Stamp-Connection through that program. He says he appreciates the opportunity to move beyond the poor choices of his past and prove himself as a reliable employee. He also appreciates the fact that when his car broke down recently his boss paid to get it repaired.

With just $1.25 million in annual gross revenues, Stamp-Connection is one of the smallest companies to make the 100 Best. The company won points for offering 100% percent paid health care for families of employees and paid maternity and paternity leave. But the category that vaulted Stamp-Connection to No. 3 on the list of Best Small Companies was decision-making and trust.

The 37-year-old Clark, a stocky, ebullient man dressed in suspenders and a lavender tie, is a matter-of-fact guy, straight to the point, and he makes no attempt to conceal his pride in the tidy little business he has built from scratch. Clark started Stamp-Connection in the back of his apartment at age 28 and moved into a Gresham storefront in 2001 after getting a bank loan for $18,000. The first time the company cleared $1 million he threw a big party that featured 125 people singing a rousing version of Yellow Submarine.

Clark’s background in accounting taught him the importance of best business practices and attention to detail. A stint at a local stamp company that has since failed offered him plenty of examples of how not to do things.

“The prevailing attitude at that company was that employees are a problem that needs to be dealt with,” Clark recalls. “I view our employees as our No. 1 asset … They’re the ones talking to the customers, manufacturing the stamps, putting pride into their work. We need to make sure they’re well taken care of.”

Frankie, the office mascot and presidential pup.

What better way to take care of the team than to boost pay by 6% during a recession?

When business slowed in 2009, Clark did not cut anyone’s pay or benefits. All workers received their usual 3% cost-of-living increases in the spring and those who qualified also got 3% performance-based raises in the fall. The only compensation package that got cut last year was Clark’s.

Customers for Stamp-Connection range from the Japanese multinational Shachihata to local businesses Clark meets through the Gresham Chamber of Commerce. It’s a very different mix of customers being served at Northwest Newborn Specialists (No. 2, Small): parents hit with the devastating news that their newborn child needs immediate medical care.

Caring for critically injured babies is intense work, and intensely well compensated. Northwest Newborn’s neonatal intensive care units feature state-of-the-art equipment for handling patients with complex problems, including one of the few ECMO lung machines for infants in the Northwest. The group’s North Portland administrative offices are stylish and spacious, with large offices for most employees and a posh conference room.

Even in the worst of recessions no one is likely to recommend cutting back on emergency care for prematurely born babies and infants with life-threatening medical complications. Neonatologists earn on average more than $200,000 per year, and top performers are recruited aggressively. The physicians at Northwest Newborn have ample opportunities to move on to different practices elsewhere. Yet turnover is practically non-existent, say doctors and administrators.

Stamp-Connection president John Clark (right) and employees Serene Brown (center) and Olga Lane (left) share a laugh over a promotional calendar provided by one of their vendors. Bottom: Clark and his dog-about-town Frankie share a desk.

“I can’t even imagine trying to dig my CV out to try to find another job,” says chief medical officer Dr. Craig Novack. “I don’t even know where my CV is.”

The same sense of satisfaction — and loyalty — appears to prevail among Northwest Newborn’s administrative team. The 12 admin employees who work under chief financial officer Cheryl Hughes Gaulke offer a cascade of reasons why they love their work: pride in the mission, comprehensive benefits, mutual respect between physicians and administrators, integrity, a great office space, and extreme flexibility. Four-day work weeks are the rule rather than the exception for full-time administrative employees. Support and praise for Gaulke as a team leader is unanimous.

“I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else,” says Kathy Axelrod, a 13-year employee.

Administrative assistant LaNita Bunch, who had to leave her job at Northwest Newborn for four years to live and work in Kansas City, says she felt fortunate to get hired back upon her return to Portland. Her interim position was “just a job,” she says. “You can’t compare it in any way to what we have here.”

Northwest Newborn is a frequent 100 Best winner, and the super-energetic Gaulke and her management team take the findings from the annual surveys seriously. It’s clear from just a few interactions with Gaulke that she does not do things halfway. Ask to speak with a few employees and you will find yourself interviewing a dozen at once. Ask to speak to one of the physicians and you’ll find three interviews scheduled back-to-back with doctors who specialize in saving the lives of infants. That intense attention to specifics from Gaulke and her colleagues is reflected in Northwest Newborn’s consistently high scores across the board in the 100 Best surveys, especially in the benefits category.

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Only the software giant Microsoft (No. 1, Large) earned a higher score for benefits. Among the perks Northwest Newborn offers are fully paid medical, dental, and alternative care coverage; subsidized child care; 15% of salary contributed to a retirement plan regardless of employee contributions; and a whopping 27 paid days off after one year of service.

Dr. Patrick Lewallen, medical director of Northwest Newborn Specialists, tends to a baby in the neonatal ward of Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

“Our work is emotionally draining and physically challenging but the payback is huge,” says Dr. Louise Baxter, who has worked for Northwest Newborn for 15 years and kept in touch with many of her patients as they have grown up to lead healthy lives. “We have just a great team, and we have the privilege of taking care of critically injured babies and helping families that are in crisis.”

When you visit with tightly knit companies such as Stamp-Connection and Northwest Newborn, you often hear people say they consider co-workers “like family.” At Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating in Salem (No. 1, Medium)many of the core employees aren’t just like family. They are family.

Majority owner and president Josh Welborn was 6 years old when he first started going out on plumbing jobs with his father John, who co-founded the business in 1969. He still works with his father today, along with his brother Jeremy. Foreman Wayne Miller, a 30-plus-year veteran, works with his two sons Kevin and Todd. Accounting assistant Julie Moore works with her father Jerry, a foreman, who worked with her grandfather Bill up until his retirement.

“We’re family and friends first and co-workers second,” says Julie Moore. “That means everybody helps each other out, no matter what the job is. Everybody’s got your back.”

One of the very tiny patients cared for by Northwest Newborn’s specialists. Job satisfaction and loyalty are high with this Portland team.

It starts at the top. Bearded and slim, dressed in a black Nike baseball cap and an Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating T-shirt, Josh Welborn exudes understated confidence in a manner that brings to mind a good poker player. He says little in an interview and shows almost no emotion until he touches on the subject of family. “We’ve got two, three, even four generations, and those guys are proud to work here. They’re pushing their sons and grandsons to get a job here. That feeds into the stability we have here. We’re a big corporate company now I guess, but we still try to keep that down-home feel as much as we can. My dad’s been pretty darn successful and he still runs around in Levi’s. He’s not trying to prove he’s better than anybody else. He’s never forgotten where he came from.”

Conversations with employees in the modest offices and the fabrication shop out back turn up a consistent show of support for the relaxed, casual leadership style, the frequent barbecues and celebrations, and the company policy of covering chiropractic and acupuncture treatments for nagging injuries as well as traditional health care.

It helps that Oregon Cascade is doing better than many contractors in the recession. The company recently nabbed a $15 million job doing plumbing and heating for the new football arena at the University of Oregon, which brought a bit of a hiring spree. They had plenty of good candidates from which to choose.

Top: A staff meeting at Northwest Newborn where many employees attend via teleconferencing, with photos displayed to show who is on the phone. Bottom: Dr. Patrick Lewallen consults with RN Chrissy Harrison in the neonatal ward of Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

“We have no trouble at all finding people when we need to bring people in,” says co-founder and vice president Walt Haskins. “We’ve got people beating our doors down even in good times. That tells you something.”

It also tells you something that Oregon Cascade scored extremely high for workplace satisfaction in spite of being a non-union shop, which is unusual for contractors of this size. Welborn says running an open shop enables the company to be more flexible and efficient, winning bids by trimming costs without cutting pay or benefits.

Oregon Cascade is 25% employee-owned, with Welborn holding the other 75%. Long-time employees say they appreciate holding a stake in the company’s fortunes, and find it motivating. “You produce for the company and the company gives back,” says Wayne Miller, who is about to retire after 38 years of service. “It’s pretty simple but not every company does that.”

Oregon Cascade wasn’t the only contractor to make the 100 Best in spite of a vicious downturn in the building industry. Adroit Construction Company (No. 6, Medium), Olsson Industrial Electric (No. 7 Medium), Oregon Electric Group (No. 8, Large) Reitmeier Mechanical (No. 10, Small) and Wilson Construction Company (No. 11, Large), among others, all scored well. So did May Trucking of Salem (No. 22, Large), from another industry hit hard by the recession.

May Trucking’s director of human resources, Scott Smith, says the company acted early to cut fuel costs by limiting idling time and investing in low-resistance tires, which helped management keep costs down without resorting to cutting pay or benefits. “A lot of our competitors cut back and this was a good thing for us,” says Smith. “There are a lot of drivers available and we’re interested in getting the best ones out there to work for us. That means increased safety and fewer mistakes that cost us money and customers.”

If there’s an industry that fared worse in 2009 than construction and trucking, it would have to be banking. Yet financial institutions such as Bay Bank (No. 4, Medium), Pacific Continental Bank (No. 18, Large), Umpqua Bank, (No. 23, Large), Chetco Federal Credit Union (No. 33 Medium), the Commerce Bank of Oregon (No. 14, Small) and Clatsop Community Bank (No. 25, Small) managed to keep workplace morale high.

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Top: Tina Styles (front) Deborah Douma (rear) file daily material requests for job sites at Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating in Salem. Bottom: Jeremy Ballard solders pipe at OreFab, the in-house fabrication facility of Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating.

Clatsop Community Bank is a fairly new institution, just opened in the spring of 2008, and as a result it has far fewer troubled loans on its books than others in the industry. But executive vice president Joe Schulte says workplace culture has been as crucial as timing in enabling the bank to succeed. “We don’t hire for experience first,” he says. “We hire for culture first, capacity to learn second, and experience third.”

A similar ethic prevails at Ruby Receptionist (No. 21, Small), the fast-growing Portland business that added eight jobs in 2009 and expanded its benefits package. CEO Jill Nelson created the new position “culture czar” last August to coordinate team events and welcome new hires.

Of course, the majority of Oregon businesses were in no position to hire anyone last year. Even some of the 100 Best had to make cuts in 2009.

Beaverton-based Axium, a software development company specializing in software for the architectural and engineering industry, laid off 13 people in February 2009 yet still scored high enough later in the year to place No. 24 among medium-sized companies in Oregon. The layoffs caused “a lot of anguish for all of us,” says chief marketing officer Cathy Mills. “We had no experience with layoffs. We researched how to do it and how not to do it and we just tried to be completely open and honest with everyone.”

Even after the layoffs, part owners Cathy Mills and Alan Mills found the numbers still weren’t adding up. They had to make further cuts, so they decreased salaries from the top down. They cut pay 20% for themselves and 10% for managers but kept pay steady for all non-management workers.

Then when it turned out they had done better than expected, they rewarded the entire Axium team with bonuses.

Left to right: Oregon Cascade Plumbing’s leadership team Walt Haskins, Josh Welborn and John Welborn.

What do these small stories tell us about the larger story of maintaining a healthy workplace culture when times get tough?

The answer varies from business to business, but one trait the top performers clearly share is leadership. It would be hard to find three leaders more different in style than John Clark of Stamp-Connection, Cheryl Hughes Gaulke of Northwest Newborn Specialists and Josh Welborn of Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating. What they share is an ability to motivate employees and keep them happy. Whether it’s charisma or a commitment to quietly leading by example, the intangible qualities that add up to leadership produce measurable results in workplace satisfaction.

This year’s 100 Best results bear that out. Of the six categories that contribute to a company’s score, the category that held up strongest this year, bucking a strong downward trend, was decision-making and trust. That’s a direct vote of confidence in an organization’s leaders, and the ethic it represents is the polar opposite of Wall Street fat cats rewarding themselves with bonuses while unemployment soars.

It’s challenging enough to achieve mutual trust in the workplace during the best of times. To gain it in the worst of times takes commitment.

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