Profiles of the 2011 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon


0311_100BestIntroWhat is it that makes for a great workplace? For every company on this year’s 100 best list, it’s a combination of solid, tangible benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and flexible schedules mixed with other, more colorful and less obvious elements.

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0311_100BestIntro

What is it that makes for a great workplace? For every company on this year’s 100 best list, it’s a combination of solid, tangible benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and flexible schedules mixed with other, more colorful and less obvious elements. Maybe it has to do with how a company stuck together through a downturn or the way it celebrated a record year. Perhaps it’s how the work a business does aligns with the values of its employees or how the company actually listens when its workers talk. Or maybe it’s the fact that your company helped bring to life the Na’vi, the 9-foot-tall blue humanoids who inhabit the fictional world of Avatar.

Whatever the mix, it works. And though it’s different for each business, the end product almost always comes out the same: happy employees, successful companies and a spot on our annual 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon list.


BY JON BELL

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Rachel Shelton (front), Jewel Miller (at right) and other employees at Ruby Receptionists strike a tree pose during a company yoga session, just one of the many perks for those who work at the 8-year-old virtual receptionist company.
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When customers give positive feedback, Ruby Receptionists employees add the kudos — and their own personal designs — to company compliment books.
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Stacey Thompson plucks a banjo at Ruby Receptionists. One of the things employees appreciate about working at Ruby is that they still have time for creative side projects like playing in bands or making movies.
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Jill Nelson, president of Ruby Receptionists, says she and a friend chose the retro name Ruby because it harkens back to a time when friendly, personal service was the norm. // Photos by Eric Näslund

Jill Nelson herself admits it: sitting at a desk, answering phones all day long — being a receptionist — is not traditionally a fun job.

But the founder and president of RUBY RECEPTIONISTS (NO. 2 BEST MEDIUM COMPANY), a virtual answering service in Portland with more than 1,000 business clients across the nation, says that core values like “foster happiness” and “practice wowism” truly permeate her company, leading to satisfied clients and smiling employees.

“People who like making people’s days do a great job here,” says Nelson, who started Ruby in 2003 as one of its three original receptionists.

The receptionists at Ruby — there are 40 now, as well as 20 other employees — pride themselves on their mix of professionalism and good cheer. It’s a blend that helps drive the company and make it a good place to work. The average Ruby receptionist makes about $14 an hour, gets health benefits at 32 hours and, new last year, can participate in the company’s 401(k) plan.

The relatively young staff, many of whom are involved in bands or films or other creative side projects, also have opportunities to grow professionally and personally within Ruby. And three years ago when employee morale seemed to sag, Nelson zeroed in on staffing shortages as the main culprit. The company has since stayed on top of its hiring needs, which has helped drive average employee longevity up from 275 days to 521.

Nelson is also a big believer in celebrating her company’s success with those who help make it happen. For Ruby Receptionists, which doubled its revenues in 2010 to $3.9 million, it means company parties that Nelson herself calls legendary.

“I think you really want to create an environment where employees feel rewarded and treated well,” she says, “one where, if it ever did get hard for us, our staff would be right there with us.”


 

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Stumptown employee Brian Keeffe inspects some of the coffee roaster’s finest beans. In addition to standard benefits, Stumptown keeps employees happy in some creative ways, including sending several of them overseas last summer to staff a temporary coffee bar in Amsterdam.
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Matthew Dawson teaching a class of California roasters the Stumptown way.
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Anna Keeffe makes coffee at Stumptown. The company employs about 100 in Portland and another 50 in Seattle and New York.
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Coffee signs in a Stumptown café. The roaster will consolidate its headquarters in an old Salvation Army building in Portland in the near future.
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Matt Lounsbury, director of operations, says Stumptown’s employees are “great people who are inspired to be here and want to stay with us.” // Photos by Eric Näslund

If you know anything at all about the Portland coffee roaster STUMPTOWN COFFEE (NO. 7 BEST LARGE COMPANY) — that it was founded by colorful hipster Duane Sorenson, that it insists on paying a fair price and then some to its foreign coffee growers or just that its coffee can make someone’s day — then some of its employee perks should come as no surprise.

Of course the company has paid for employee bands to record their own albums. Of course there are wagging dogs to greet you at the laid-back headquarters in Southeast Portland. Of course their 2008 Christmas party featured a mechanical bull and free tattoos. And yes, of course they threw a keg of beer on a tour bus and took 25 of their employees to a Slayer show in Salem in 2006.

But the 11-year-old company, which has 150 employees and locations in Portland, Seattle and New York, goes beyond thrash metal and a full-time masseuse. There are solid wages, health care — “Before I even took a paycheck, I wanted to make sure all my employees had health care,” Sorenson says — and, coming soon, a retirement plan for a traditionally young but steady workforce that has begun to buy houses and start families.

Sorenson says he hires people who inspire him, even if that initially comes through their artwork or music, and who seek out Stumptown’s values — those embodied by its commitment to its farmers, for example — as much as the company’s cool vibe.

Matt Lounsbury, director of operations, says that latter point may be what employees appreciate most about working for Stumptown.

“Otherwise, you’re just representing a product,” he says. “Duane doesn’t ask anybody to sell T-shirts or anything other than coffee, but in turn he’s giving the best ingredients the world has to offer so that you feel like you have a company you can stand behind. That’s real.”


 

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Steve Smith, president of Tec Labs, says he’s glad to be back on the 100 Best List after a two-year absence. “It’s such an important piece of how my brain works when it comes to running this company,” he says.
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Jessica Smith is one of 30 employees at Tec Labs, many of whom are in better spirits these days than during the tough times of 2008-09.
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Tec Labs employees Dustin Patterson, Kyle Knudtson, T.J. Weekly and Mike Hutchinson grab a game on the company’s  basketball court.
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Among the benefits that Tec Labs employees like Mark Christensen enjoy: yearly profit-sharing bonuses, bagel meetings, and travel to tradeshows and conferences so employees can see how Tec Labs’ products are sold.
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Amy Byler leaves a comment about a colleague at the Tec Labs Appreciation Station. Employees post positive feedback about their co-workers at the station; monthly drawings award prizes to those nominated. // Photos by Eric Näslund

Like many companies, TEC LABS (NO. 21 BEST SMALL COMPANY) had a tough 2008 and 2009.

First came the recession, followed by the coldest, wettest summer in 15 years — meteorology that’s not very kind to a company whose flagship product is a salve for poison oak and ivy. Next, president and CEO Steve Smith lost his mother and went through a divorce.

Topping it all off, despite making the 100 Best list at least eight times before, Tec Labs failed to make the cut either year.

“I was very concerned,” says Smith, who founded Tec Labs in Albany with his father in 1977.  “When you’re already down, it was just one more kick.”

But at the beginning of 2010, Smith and his 30 employees decided the trench mentality had run its course. Realizing that the company’s strong culture needed to be unhooked from the owner, Smith set up a culture team. Small perks like monthly lunches that had been cut to save money were reinstated. And in the first quarter of 2010, the company paid employees back for an earlier 5% payroll cut.
Partly as a result, Tec Labs had a record 2010.

“You’ve got to take care of your horses first,” says Smith, alluding to his grandfather’s practice of always taking extra special care of his draft horses in the field.

The tribulations of the past couple years have underscored for Smith the important role that Tec Labs plays in the lives of its employees, not only as an employer, but as a place to develop lifelong friendships and become part of an extended family. When you create an environment like that, he says, employees enjoy their work and will go the extra mile — or 10 — in good times or bad.

“It’s like refining gold or silver,” Smith says. “You heat it up and that’s when all the impurities come out. But skim it off and what’s left is pure gold.”


Despite its best efforts to ward off the economic slump, ENTEK MANUFACTURING (NO. 34 BEST MEDIUM COMPANY) had to lay off 12 full-time workers in 2009.

The cuts could have been much worse, but the Lebanon manufacturer of extrusion systems for customers in industries like wood-plastic composites, food packaging and batteries rolled up its sleeves and did just about everything it could to keep its remaining 70 employees working. Every staff member took some kind of a cut, some workers went to a flex schedule, and at one point, company founder Jim Young was personally putting Entek people to work building fences and what-not just so they could keep food on their tables during the downtime.

“We all had some pain in 2009, but we all shared it together,” says Entek president Larry Keith. “I think people really saw the sincerity of the company trying to keep everyone on.”

Keith says the company is a place where employees lean on and treat each other like family. Entek also keeps the lines of communication open at all times, not only through twice-monthly team meetings and regular barbecues where Keith himself mans the grill, but through an open-book financial system that ties employees closely to the inner workings of the company.

“They see how hard it is to earn a dollar,” Keith says, “but they also see opportunities for improvement.”
And when Entek asks employees for input, the company listens.

Each year Entek has made the 100 Best list, Keith has sat down with every single employee to find out what could make Entek an even better place to work. Last year, after salaried employees inquired about some flexibility in their nine-hour days, they were offered eight- or nine-hour days with an early out on Friday afternoons.

“Every year we just try to make it a better place,” Keith says.


 

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Senior project analyst Robert Scholl and his collection of coffee sleeves at Research Into Action.
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Marjorie McRae enjoys Research Into Action not only for its environmental work but also because there’s
room in the office for her two dogs. // Photos by Teresa Meier

Jane Peters has noticed a pretty unique trait among not only her 21 employees, but anyone who’s even interviewed for work at her social marketing and evaluation research firm RESEARCH INTO ACTION (NO. 25 BEST SMALL COMPANY).

They all have the environment on their minds.

And because Research Into Action focuses primarily on energy efficiency, renewable energy and the environment, it’s been an attractive place for green-minded workers.

“That’s always been kind of a value that people who work here have had,” says Peters, who founded the Portland firm in 1996 to conduct research and analysis of, among other things, the energy programs utilities offer their customers. “I think people here really like to work someplace that is consistent with the way they’d like the world to go.”

Peters fosters that ideal even more with some of the benefits she offers employees, including monthly $50 bonuses for those who walk, carpool or bike to work, subsidies for a membership in the car-sharing service Zipcar and $100 a month to help pay for the purchase of a highly efficient car.

“We have quite a few hybrids in the parking lot,” Peters says.

Yet beyond some of the green and more unique benefits, Peters says she has always tried to make Research Into Action a great place to work through more workaday perks: a nice office environment, plenty of monitors and computer power, comfortable work stations, and a schedule that works out nicely for parents with kids in school.

One sign that it’s working: she’s had very little turnover in nearly 15 years.

“What I really hope is that this is a good place to work in terms of respecting everyone’s knowledge and skills, that there are opportunities to grow and sufficient benefits so people feel they are secure,” she says. “It’s pretty simple, but it works.”


 

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Autodesk prides itself on treating its employees like Pamela Adams well; and part of that means bringing Stella to work.
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A perk of working at Autodesk: the company’s technology is behind some pretty cool innovations, including the video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Employee Shivakumar Sundaram rocks out in the Lake Oswego office.
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Yes, Autodesk employees can bring their dogs to work and also get discounted pet insurance. From left: Royden Chick with Reggie; Stan Mora with Maggie; Brian Repp with Nico and Lena; Roxie Hecker with Lulu; and Claudia Wood with Simon. // Photos by Teresa Meier

For employees of AUTODESK (NO. 31 BEST LARGE COMPANY), the sheer coolness of some of the work they do may be enough to have earned the company repeated spots on the 100 Best list.

A design, engineering and entertainment software firm whose manufacturing industry group calls Lake Oswego home, Autodesk software helped design professionals conjure up the Shanghai Tower, a spacey, 2,000-foot skyscraper currently under construction in China. The company’s first-ever iPhone application, SketchBook Mobile, is one of Apple’s most popular, and Autodesk technology was behind much of the colorful world and creatures in James Cameron’s epic film Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time.

“I think our employees are proud to work for a company developing cool and innovative technology that makes a difference in the world,” says Buzz Kross, senior vice president of Autodesk’s manufacturing industry group.

About 170 Autodesk employees work in Lake Oswego, nearly all of them involved in software development or product management. According to Kross, Autodesk provides tools and opportunities for professional development and encourages every employee to forge their own careers.

“The sky is the limit,” he says.

In addition, Autodesk honors and rewards its technological innovators through a patent incentive program, lets employees bring their dogs to work, reimburses for fitness club memberships and offers benefits to bicycle commuters. And on top of that, all employees are eligible for a six-week paid sabbatical every four years.

“The sabbatical program is unique because it is embedded in our culture,” Kross says. “People come back refreshed and motivated and say this is one of their favorite benefits.”

 

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