Work. On a good day, it consumes about half of our waking hours. It is in large part the justification for our schooling, the means by which we support our families, our lives and our leisure. A century ago, “a good job” was one that paid enough to put food on the table and didn’t […]

Work. On a good day, it consumes about half of our waking hours. It is in large part the justification for our schooling, the means by which we support our families, our lives and our leisure.

A century ago, “a good job” was one that paid enough to put food on the table and didn’t kill us. Today, we demand more: good pay and benefits, yes, but also reasonable bosses, meaningful work and time enough for the rest of our lives.

Signs seeking help fill the windows of stores and restaurants even in a time of economic softening, and anecdotal reports abound that members of the newest generation of people to fill those jobs are ever more picky. Survey after survey reports that while money may make a difference between the choice of two evenly matched job opportunities, other factors can be just as persuasive ­ from fringe benefits to the atmosphere of the workplace.

In this time of labor shortages and an extended economic boom ­ albeit one that has grown creaky ­ Milwaukee Magazine looked at just what makes a good job and where in the six-county metro area they are to be found.

To that end, we partnered with MRA: The Management Association Inc., a 100-year-old employer association with 2,200 member firms in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Together, MRA and Milwaukee Magazine designed a survey to question companies about their management practices and procedures, including pay and benefits, opportunity for advancement, workplace culture, work-life balance and more (see “How We Did It,” page 50).

Participation was voluntary, and of the hundreds of employers in the greater Milwaukee area who might have chosen to respond, fewer than 100 actually did so. That’s not so surprising, however; in all likelihood, companies who already knew they weren’t likely to do well simply opted out.

That employers responding to the survey were generally high-performing companies was underscored by comparisons to other MRA surveys. While 22 percent of a group of area companies the association recently surveyed reported policies permitting employees to work from home regularly, 67 percent of the “Best Places to Work” applicants ­ three times the number in the other survey ­ had such policies, MRA’s research team told us. Our applicants also beat out a broader sample in offering health plans that covered orthodontics, to cite another example.

We didn’t just stop with self-reporting by employers, however. We asked high-scoring firms to supply random employee lists. We randomly selected 10 people from each for a follow-up telephone survey, wanting to determine whether employees thought their companies lived up to the image presented. We also did our own research, weighing what other knowledgeable sources said about the quality of various workplaces.

In the end, what we found on the part of the best employers was a striking mix of pragmatism and idealism.

Executive after executive told us that their policies were the product of a rational assessment of the costs of high turnover. At Laughlin/Constable, the Downtown ad agency leading the list of mid-size employers, Chief Financial Officer Mitch Winter doesn’t see a trade-off between profitability and being the sort of employer people hunger to work for. “There’s almost more of a cost in not being an employer like that,” he says, citing the expenses in recruiting and training new staffers.

Good business sense in large part underlies the approach to employee relations at Robert W. Baird & Co., executives there assert. The company, which topped the list of large firms, was founded on a culture that puts the customer’s interest first. But intertwined with that is a concern for employees’ welfare. “The single reason in my mind that Baird has been more successful than most in the industry over a very long period of time has been, and continues to be, the culture of the firm and the people it has been able to attract because of that culture,” says G. Frederick Kasten, the brokerage firm’s chairman.

At the same time, however, more than one company reported that what governed their treatment of employees was deeply felt values transcending dollars and cents. Few were as explicit as Building Service Inc., where Ralph Kuehn, in his 15-year tenure as president, helped shape a culture encouraging employees to adhere to a hierarchy of values that placed company third, after God and family. But several asserted that a moral dimension influenced their policies.

Still, no one company is quite like another. For instance, many report programs to individually recognize employees’ on-the-job accomplishments. But one best-company CEO is skeptical. “Why do you want to create more losers than winners?” asks Dan Steininger. He abolished these awards at Catholic Knights after being told anonymously, “There are quiet, competent people who are doing wonderful, unbelievably good things for customers and you don’t notice it.”

Such diversity in approaches is as it should be, says MRA President Susan Fronk. Indeed, part of the benefit of identifying best places to work isn’t just to inflate the job application rolls at the selected few. Fronk hopes other companies can draw some lessons in how to improve their own workplaces.

“It isn’t just about spending lots of money or doing everything,” observes Fronk. “We at MRA learned empirically what we inherently already knew to be true: There is no cookbook recipe for greatness, each organization needs to play to its strengths and use strategies that fit its unique culture, and deep pockets don’t necessarily equate with an employer of choice. A small, creative, caring organization can be every bit as successful in attracting and retaining talent as a large one with greater resources at its disposal.”

She found another hopeful sign as well: The best employers don’t seem to be treating a good workplace as a luxury in the current slowdown. “The challenging economy is not causing companies to abandon long-term strategies to position themselves for growth,” says Fronk. “In many organizations studied, there remains a mindset and keen focus on meeting performance and employee development goals.”

Large Companies 500+ Employees

1. Robert W. Baird & Co.
Investment banker, stockbroker
1,308 employees in metro Milwaukee

Paying attention to corporate culture.
Baird Chairman Fred Kasten traces the company’s workplace culture directly back to the founder, whose name the company bears. “Robert Baird taught us all if you put the client’s interest first, before the company, before yourself, in the long term, everyone will prosper,” says Kasten.

To give clients the best advice, he continues, Baird needs to employ the best people and create a culture that will sustain its values and keep those employees. Just how seriously Kasten takes the business of corporate culture may be reflected in the year he spent recruiting President and CEO Paul Purcell from New York investment bankers Kidder Peabody. “The entire subject of our discussions until the last meeting was all on culture,” says Kasten. Quips one two-year employee: “It’s almost like a cult ­ everyone’s so nice.”

If there’s one key benefit at Baird, perhaps it’s the company bonus plan (see “Best Pay,” above). And bonuses are not restricted to the top executives either. “There is a general sharing for everyone. It’s important to the culture that everyone benefits ­ down to the mail guy,” says Purcell.

The years 2000 and 2001 have been a splash of cold water for investors and the companies that serve them, and Baird, although it hasn’t been significantly hurt, hasn’t been immune. The company endured some job cuts but sought to cushion the blow for those who left. Even so, the tighter economy hasn’t killed programs such as the company’s nine-month leadership training school, required of anyone who manages or supervises other employees.

“There’s no question that in the good years, we’ve been able to beef up some of our programs and practices,…” says Leslie Dixon, human resources director. “But in good times or bad, what really matters is how our employees are treated day in and day out. That doesn’t cost money.”

2. Northwestern Mutual
4,027 employees in metro Milwaukee

Expecting to get as good as it gives.
Northwestern Mutual has a long-held reputation as one of Milwaukee’s most benevolent employers, so its spot on the final list is no great surprise. Symbolic of its perks is its famous free lunch, but that’s just a start. Employee Suzette Brahm appreciates the flexibility the company and her individual boss offered after the recent birth of her child, as well as the company’s Lifeworks program, which provides referrals for people’s personal needs. “There are a lot of resources that we can go to when we have problems in our personal lives,” she told our researcher.

Sue Lueger, vice president for human resources, says the workplace culture grows out of a philosophy that places quality ahead of size. “There’s a lot of consistency in how we treat the customer, how we treat the agent and how we treat the employee,” she asserts.

Despite new technology and industry ups and downs, the insurer has never had a layoff. “We have always found people another job,” says Lueger. “We feel a responsibility to the person…. It’s the right thing to do.”

Its size and financial success help the company afford a wide range of perks. Employees can drop off dry cleaning, order meals to take home or get help planning personal travel, to name just a few.

The benefits aren’t primarily about generosity, to be sure. Take that free lunch. NM sees the legendary perk as a trade-off that boosts productivity by keeping workers in the building for the 30-minute lunch break instead of sending them out where they might linger over an extra cup of coffee or something a little stronger. “The free lunch is here as a business necessity,” says Lueger. “When you walk in here, you know you’re going to have to work hard. So people will go to lunch and then get back to work.”

3. Strong Capital Management
Investment management, advisers
1,375 employees in metro Milwaukee

Continuous learning in a plush environment.
The workplace and management style at this Menomonee Falls mutual funds operator reflect the man who founded the company a quarter-century ago. Like Northwestern Mutual, Strong gives employees a free lunch, and for much the same reason: to help people stay focused on their work. “It’s part of our ‘we’re going to take care of you’ philosophy,” says Human Resources Director Leslie Lynch, “and it’s a benefit to have people in the building.”

Strong’s employees cite everything from the company’s physical surroundings to its lack of bureaucracy. “When you work in a nice building on nice grounds, people will respect their work and respect others,” says one worker. Adds Lynch: “We try very hard not to have a lot of layers so we can communicate very effectively with one another.”

One of the company’s more unusual perks is a monthly series of speakers who come in to discuss a wide range of business issues with employees. The program reflects Strong’s emphasis on helping employees learn throughout their careers, says Lynch.

The company also hires very selectively. Hiring managers have all been steeped in the company’s high-performance culture, and job applicants are studied carefully, says Lynch. “We make sure we hire the right person.”

4. Journal Sentinel Inc.
Newspaper publisher
2,804 employees in metro Milwaukee

Making strides in morale since a merger.
Journal Sentinel Inc.’s inclusion on a list of “best employers” might strike many as surprising, given the routine reports of grumbling inside the newsroom at Fourth and State. But the reality is that as a large employer, the unit of employee-owned Journal Communications has long had one of the better packages of pay and benefits among Milwaukee-area companies. For instance, its six-month paid maternity leave for new mothers was ahead of many others in the area.

In the pre-merger days, the rival newsrooms had management styles as different as night and day. The Journal, for all of the grousing of some in the ranks, was generally collegial, while over at the Sentinel, there was a drill-sergeant style of supervision. When the merger put a number of old Sentinel hands in key supervisory positions, a mood of uncertainty prevailed.

Jim Spangler, vice president of human resources and labor relations, points out that newsrooms aren’t always the most accurate barometer of morale at a company overall. “Any newsroom operates on a very healthy dose of skepticism,” he observes. In the four years he’s been there, says Spangler, there’s been a concerted effort by management, unions and employees to improve the company in a wide range of ways ­ from morale to productivity.

Things really are better today, says David Kerner, president of the Newspaper Guild local that represents newsroom employees. Kerner, a 32-year veteran of the paper who worked most of his career in the composing room before moving to the newsroom to join the pagination desk, says management has come a long way from the days when “their way to get your attention was to hit you over the head with a two-by-four and treat you like you were a nobody.”

5. Rockwell Automation
Industrial controls, motors, drives 4,046 employees in metro Milwaukee

Embracing diversity and flexibility.
Sixteen years ago, Milwaukee woke to the shocking news that Allen-Bradley, a venerable, longtime industrial fixture and one of the city’s most paternalistic employers, had been sold to Rockwell International. Today, the company’s signature clock tower and factory still loom over the South Side, but the old name is virtually gone, supplanted by Rockwell Automation. Rockwell’s presence, meanwhile, has grown substantially, with the acquisition of a West Allis firm, the opening of a plant in Mequon and most recently a move that brought the corporate headquarters of the Rockwell Automation unit from the West Coast to Milwaukee.

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One of the few publicly traded companies on this list, Rockwell Automation appears to be committed to a more employee-friendly stance. The company prides its place on Working Mother magazine’s list of 100 best companies for working mothers, says Kristie Zahn, director of human resources strategy and planning at the company. A veteran from the Allen-Bradley days, Zahn says the company “has really blossomed” in the last decade and a half when it comes to diversity, both in terms of race and gender but also diversity in thought, outlook and working arrangements. Employees we questioned praised the company’s casual dress code and its flexibility, an attribute singled out by one working mother who is part time by choice.

Members of the new generation of workers “want development, they want mentoring,” says Zahn. “They want their bosses to be coaches, not dictators.” In what she calls the “war for talent going on right now,” Rockwell is trying to demonstrate “an employee value proposition that’s stronger than just compensation and benefits.”

That’s true even as the company has gone through a downsizing that pared hundreds of employees when a core part of its U.S. business tanked. Says one engineer who remains: “Even though we are experiencing a downturn, the company is making all the right decisions to move forward.”

6. Aurora Health Care
Hospitals, clinics, healthcare facilities
15,680 employees in metro Milwaukee

Keeping a scarce pool of workers happy.
Created in the mid-1980s from a series of hospital mergers, Aurora is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the local healthcare marketplace. The firm, structured as a nonprofit, has grown aggressively. It is both Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s largest single employer.

“It’s our goal to be the best provider of healthcare services to the community that we can be,” says Kathy Klobuchar, vice president of compensation and benefits at Aurora. “In order to carry out that mission, we know we need to have and to support the type of employees who are going to be very patient-focused, very customer service-focused.”

Which is why, she adds, Aurora has been consciously “positioning [itself] to be an employer of choice.” With such a huge operation, the need is especially sharp, as the healthcare field is one where there are acute labor shortages. The nature of those shortages makes for a turnover rate of about 17 percent, somewhat higher than some non-healthcare employers experience but far less than some in the industry have faced.

Although not as expansive in its selection of benefits, Aurora is one of a small number of employers offering paid paternity leave in addition to leaves for new mothers.

The company’s size also demands extensive communication, including newsletters, an intranet and regular phone-in sessions with company execs ­ from CEO Ed Howe on down. Employees don’t shy away from tough questions, Klobuchar notes. One asked why pay scales differed from one community to another. The answer: Local market conditions and demand tend to govern pay policies.

7. Maysteel
Sheet metal fabricator
824 employees in metro Milwaukee

A team atmosphere founded on involvement.
A privately held company that bends sheet metal for other businesses, Maysteel in Menomonee Falls has been facing facts that confront a number of manufacturers: Deep down, their products are mostly all alike.

In Maysteel’s case, those products are fairly anonymous ­ things like sheet metal enclosures for power generators and other kinds of machinery. “We’re in an industry that pretty much all looks the same,” says President Kim Harter. In conditions like those, he says, the best way to differentiate yourself from competitors is by responding to customers.

“I think the demands our customers are placing on us now are much more. They demand much more teamwork and much more involvement by everybody. And the people on the shop floor, they’re the ones who know the most about the operation.”

Thus, Maysteel has extensive employee involvement programs and also ensures that training is widespread. It also is in that increasingly rare group of employers that provides fully paid health insurance.

Being privately held relieves the company of the pressures of Wall Street, says Harter. Does that make the company more generous? “I wouldn’t say it would lead to more generous terms but certainly to longer-term thinking, and I think that benefits all the people at Maysteel.”

8. Falk Corp.
Manufacturer of gears, couplings
900 employees in metro Milwaukee

Even the factory hands here work on salary.
Probably the most unusual thing about 109-year-old Falk Corp. is that everyone is paid on salary. Under the company’s all-salary approach, there’s no such thing as paid or unpaid sick days or other days off. People are paid in full regardless of the actual hours they work. Factory employees still qualify for overtime if they work more than eight hours a day, however.

The company also reports that while top-echelon employees in upper and middle management are paid at industry averages, office, technical and factory workers are paid above-average wages.

An emphasis on education and training for employees extends beyond merely reimbursing tuition costs ­ Falk pays the expenses up front, not after the fact, and allows up to three hours of paid time a week for studying. Workers who earn college degrees can get awards of company stock in the firm’s publicly traded parent company, United Technologies. Incentives also support its wellness program: For each hour of exercise (even on their own time away from the plant), employees earn scrip that can be used toward the purchase of clothing and other merchandise branded with Falk’s “Personal Best” wellness program logo.

Although United Technologies bought the company two years ago, human resources official Chuck Kendall is confident that the focus on employees will remain: “It’s embedded into our culture now ­ this atmosphere of trust and respect among everyone.

9. Generac Power Systems
Manufacturer of generators, engines
1,000 employees in metro Milwaukee

A company where training is key.
When the companies that took part in our survey are sorted by their scores in individual areas of the questionnaire, Generac comes up number one in training. “You can explore your own potential here,” says an engineer with six years of experience. A four-year employee in the company’s Waukesha factory ­ one of three in the Milwaukee area ­ says he values the ability to move around the shop and work on different pieces of equipment.

Dawn Tabat, senior vice president for human resources at the privately held company, says Generac views training in strongly practical terms. “We don’t train to know, we train to do,” says Tabat. “These are adults, and with adults, training has to be meaningful. They have to be able to apply it to the job.”

The company has extended its commitment to training by creating a youth apprenticeship program that gives area high school students hands-on experience at the plant and in an on-the-premises classroom.

Generac has grown astronomically just in the last five years, opening a new plant in Eagle in 1995 and another in Whitewater in 1998. With such rapid growth, the company has had to hire very fast, says Tabat. “We don’t necessarily look for experience. We look for a willingness to accept a challenge. We like people who come in with the attitude that they don’t know everything, but they’re willing to try anything.”

The company was founded in 1959 by engineer Robert Kern, who is still the principal owner. Just what will happen if or when Kern leaves ­ he’s 76 ­ isn’t entirely clear. Tabat, for one, says she believes the company can hang on to its culture. “The corporate culture is Generac,” she says. “It’s who we are.”

10. All Saints Health Care
Hospitals, clinics, healthcare services
3,335 employees in the Milwaukee area

Shining up a once lackluster employer.
All Saints might not have expected to be on a list like this a few years ago. The local newspaper was filled with stories about an exodus of disgruntled doctors employed by or affiliated with the operator of Racine’s only two hospitals and its principal medical clinic.

Those reports were a wake-up call to the organization, a unit of the Wheaton Franciscan Services Inc. group of Catholic healthcare facilities (which also includes Covenant Healthcare in Milwaukee), says Ed Malindzak, vice president of human resources and support services. All Saints boosted pay and benefits, sought to repair relations with physicians and undertook other strategies to address employee needs.

Malindzak says All Saints has tried to extend that philosophy. Nurses, for instance, were often subject to being called in on days off to fill last-minute staffing vacancies. A new policy gives bonuses (on top of regular pay and overtime, if they qualify) to nurses who volunteer to fill those vacancies.

In one of the more unusual approaches to time off, All Saints no longer differentiates between sick days, personal days and vacation days. Instead, starting employees get the equivalent of four weeks off a year. Being a “healthcare employer of choice” is one of six strategic goals All Saints has set for itself, and as evidence it has worked, Malindzak points to the regularly scheduled Q&A sessions CEO Ken Buser and other executives hold with employees. Those sessions once drew mostly job-related questions. “Now they’re questions about how do we further improve the quality of a particular clinical program.”

Mid-size Companies 101-499 Employees

1. Laughlin/Constable
Advertising agency
125 employees in the Milwaukee area

A humanistic oasis in a high-pressure field.
Given the stereotypes of the advertising business, the presence of an ad agency on a list of best workplaces might seem like an oxymoron. The pitch trade, after all, is the classic incubator of ulcers and apoplexy.

Some years back, when Laughlin/Constable was recruiting a new client services director, one candidate remarked how nice the staff appeared to be to each other, recalls co-founder Steve Laughlin. “He asked, ‘How do you guys get anything done?’ ”

Laughlin sums up the answer: “We try to be compassionate and flexible.”

Compassionate doesn’t mean soft. “We’re constantly being critical of each other. Clients are constantly being critical of us,” says Laughlin. “If we’re going to be successful, we can’t lose the ability to do that. But we have to respect each other as people.”

Although it’s a smaller agency, Laughlin/Constable seeks to offer pay and benefits on par with agencies surveyed by the industry’s trade group.

“Everything we bring on board or change has a return on investment in mind ­ either cash or non-cash,” says CFO Mitch Winter. One example: A $100 award and certificate for employees with perfect attendance paid back 15 times over, with time out of the office decreasing by more than 12 percent.

The company stresses employee input ­ from a choice of CDs to play in the lunchroom to opinions on office remodeling. An officially designated “Fun Committee” organizes regular themed lunchtime parties to build camaraderie.

“Talent today is a very precious commodity, and it’s not just a dollars-and-cents kind of deal,” says John Constable, who helped found the agency with Laughlin and the late Dennis Frankenberry in 1976.

“We were slow to be aware of ourselves as employers,” says Laughlin. Two incidents rang the alarm bells: Frankenberry’s suicide and the loss in the early 1990s of significant business with Miller Brewing Co. “It occurred to us that how you communicate with people can have a huge effect on morale,” Laughlin says as he recalls a meeting following the Miller loss. “We said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just as confused as you are.’ There was a collective sigh of relief. Our feeling was, if we really wanted to hang on to our best employees, then we really wanted to keep people informed and enthused about their jobs.”

2. Gustave A. Larson Co.
Heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment distributor
80 employees in metro Milwaukee; 120 in Wisconsin

Sensitivity and big-business discipline.
Now in its third generation of family ownership, Gustave A. Larson Co. has managed to keep the advantages of family ownership even as it’s grown to employ 250 people in Milwaukee, Madison and six states besides Wisconsin. “The owners are very sensitive to each individual’s personal needs,” says one employee. “Here, you’re a person, not a number,” says another.

Although closely held, the company seeks to foster a sense of ownership by paying company-wide incentives based on the firm’s net profits, says company President Andrew Larson, whose grandfather founded the firm in 1936. And while employees praise its family atmosphere, Larson says the company also aims to run itself with big-business discipline and tools. For instance, employees rate their supervisors, an approach pioneered by big companies like General Electric.

The company emphasizes training. Both the headquarters and many of its branches have training facilities, and its training programs have been written up in industry publications. Pay and benefits exceed industry averages, says Larson, and the culture is aimed at encouraging employees to stay. “Our philosophy has always been to hire for life.”

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3. Building Service Inc.
Interior design and construction
229 employees in metro Milwaukee

A family-focused culture.
If there’s one thing that characterizes the BSI culture, say employees and executives, it’s the notion of the workplace as family ­ and the importance of family above the workplace.

Company policies reflect a value that emphasizes family life, says President Peter Kordus, a principle integral to the way Chairman and former President Ralph Kuehn ran the business before Kordus. “We always tell employees, when something is happening in your family” ­ from a loved one’s illness to a child’s school play ­ “you should take the time to go and experience that. Take the time off and make it up later. The whole person is important, we feel.”

Other family touches abound: A committee mobilizes discreetly to help employees in distress, and BSI provides a dollar-for-dollar match. The fruits of such generosity have ranged from trips to Paris or Disneyland to a day-long cleanup brigade that showed up one Saturday to close the pool and rake leaves at the home of a co-worker stricken with cancer at the same time her husband wrestled with the disease.

To help build teamwork, departments in the company take turns monthly throwing an “appreciation day” for all of the other departments. One such special event was a chili cook-off contest, with voters tossing quarters into a pot to back one or another recipe. The proceeds all went to charity.

The Northwest Side company teems with recognition programs, including an open-ended one that simply singles out people who’ve been “caught doing something good.”

At a time when construction labor is hard to find, Kordus says the company’s 19 percent turnover rate last year was below the construction industry’s average. He credits the company’s culture. “We don’t lose people,” he says.

4. Catholic Knights
Beneficial association, insurer
110 employees in metro Milwaukee

From top down to bottom up.
Dan Steininger was an outsider and corporate attorney for Catholic Knights when the insurer, a nonprofit beneficial association for Catholics, turned to him 20 years ago to be its new chief executive.

He set out to turn the work atmosphere virtually 180 degrees. “The culture was very traditional, very top down,” he recalls. “People were not accorded trust and dignity. I wondered, why can’t you create a work environment where people have control over their own lives?”

Under Steininger, the company abolished time clocks and launched an employee round table and system of upward evaluation, where employees review their supervisors. In the process, it’s gone against the grain of some progressive management practices.

Catholic Knights doesn’t give annual performance reviews or merit raises. Steininger reasons that employee evaluation and feedback on performance should be continual, and quiet. Pay should be based strictly on the market for the position, established by surveys, to remove any hint of politics, favoritism or subjectivity ­ and to ensure that employees are frank with the people to whom they report.

“How often are you going to say, ‘Dan, I don’t agree with you,’ knowing that I’m going to set your comp?” asks Steininger.

A voracious reader, Steininger is famous for assigning books to employees and holding regular discussions on them. “We are a knowledge organization, and everybody reads. It’s part of our culture,” he says. But while that and other features may appear to reflect his idiosyncratic style, Steininger insists that is not the case. The change, he declares, “is not dependent on me. It’s a system of values and ethics and culture that’s grown up over the last 20 years. Those values transcend human beings.”

5. Paragon Development Systems
Computer systems, software
116 employees in metro Milwaukee

Giving all employees a voice.
Craig Schiefelbein recalls his days as a college student working in a factory to help pay for his education. When he made a suggestion one day on how to straighten out a convoluted production flow, his supervisor replied: “You’re not paid to think.”

“My heart just broke,” says the founder of Paragon Development Systems, and he’s resolved never to treat employees that way.

“From day one, the environment was going to be an environment where people could contribute and have ownership,” says Schiefelbein. The company has opened its books for employees from the start to foster trust and participation.

Employees praise flexible schedules, a sense of energy and a feeling of empowerment. “Anyone has the capability to make changes from any position,” says one. The Oconomowoc company seeks to capture that spirit in its organizational chart, fancifully designed in a circle, with the customer at the center. It also offers extensive training programs and a modest fitness center.

One thing Paragon demands is flexibility in return. “We’re in an industry where companies have to recreate themselves every 30 months,” says Schiefelbein. To that end, he says, the company constantly asks its employees to consider one question: “What should we start, stop or think about doing?” He adds: “I’m not the reason that this company’s been successful. It’s because everybody’s been able to contribute.”

6. Stark Investments
Investment management firm
106 employees

An egalitarian approach to perks.
Brian Stark started buying and selling securities in high school with his father. At Brown University, he wrote his senior thesis on arbitrage. While enrolled at Harvard Law School, he parlayed his knowledge into writing and publishing a book on the subject.

After years on the East Coast in a succession of investment positions, he formed his current firm in 1992 and came back to Wisconsin, where he and business partner Mike Roth both grew up. The Mequon business serves a worldwide market of very wealthy investors with a strategy that seeks to profit in bad times as well as good.

The typical hedge fund reflects its owner’s personality and dies when the founder moves on. Entrepreneurial and non-bureaucratic, they nonetheless tend toward a top-down sort of management. Stark Investments is seeking to break that autocratic mold by creating an organization that will outlive its founders.

“We tried to create a very flat organization run by consensus and teamwork,” says Stark. “Our idea from the very beginning has been to bring in the best talent we could find.”

A spirit of egalitarianism infuses the firm’s policies on benefits and bonus pay, says Linda Gorens, president and chief operating officer. Fully paid health and dental benefits are available to all, and performance bonuses are paid company wide.

Stark believes such policies help foster an attitude of reciprocity: “The mentality that when the firm does well, everyone does well, applies back toward the firm.”

The business demands a lot in return. Its global trading strategy means shifts ending at 2 a.m. for some traders and starting an hour later for others. The culture that Stark Investments is creating and the firm’s bucolic Midwestern location aim to compensate for such hardships.

7. ABB Automation
Robotic systems manufacturer
245 employees in metro Milwaukee

Flexibility, input and diversity equals success.
At ABB’s New Berlin plant, engineers and teams of skilled tradespeople put together the automated robotic systems for other industries ­ devices used to make machine tools, coat the insides of television screens and empty pastries from factory baking ovens.

Business guru Tom Peters has long praised the firm’s parent company, the Swedish-based ABB Ltd., for its decentralized organization and turn-on-a-dime adaptability. The automation subsidiary reflects those same attributes, writ small. “ABB has traditionally reorganized almost every year,” says Patricia Christensen, in charge of human resources at the New Berlin plant.

ABB employees typically are able to provide a lot of input, such as the decision a while back that made the entire plant smoke-free. At the same time, the company, by its own report, pays above industry rates and also stresses work force diversity: One in five senior managers is female and 15 percent are nonwhite.

But ABB isn’t for the person who seeks stability. “When we recruit, we’ll interview around a candidate’s ability to be flexible,” says Christensen. The constant change “builds character,” she continues. “The people who ride the ship through the storm ­ those are the people we want to keep.”

8. R.A. Smith & Associates Inc.
Civil engineering
200 employees

Creating a culture of responsiveness.
Richard Smith was happy to get his first engineering job out of college, but he wasn’t happy to work there. The bloom was off from the minute Smith was sent off without warning on a long-term assignment in Philadelphia that lasted a year and temporarily turned his new marriage into a commuter relationship.

The second job wasn’t much better. At both, Smith says the message was: “You do what you’re told and you have very little opportunity to voice your concerns.”

It was an attitude at odds with Smith’s desire to innovate and create. “I thought my opinions, feelings and beliefs made me an asset to the company. I said to myself that if I ever have a say, I’m never going to treat people the way I’ve been treated.”

That opportunity arose unexpectedly when Smith had a chance to buy out his last employer. Even then, the Brookfield company had such a poor reputation that former clients turned him away. Slowly, he began winning back past clients, making amends by finishing old projects at no pay. Soon, he put his own name on the company.

Along the way, he began to implement his long-held vows. Emblematic is his philosophy of employees with seasonal jobs. People such as surveyors are employed full time and generally don’t get laid off when poor weather means their day-to-day services aren’t required. While there are voluntary layoffs, Smith’s approach to slow periods is for employees to use the time to brush up on skills, take on new training and look for opportunities to innovate.

Smith says he has sought to cultivate a culture of responsiveness, telling employees, “Be a complainer. Tell us what you don’t like. I can solve those problems.”

The company encourages flexible scheduling and gives people time off for emergencies. It also places resources ­ from lawyers to accountants ­ at the disposal of employees. “If you help people, they will concentrate on solving your problems,” says Smith.

Smith believes his practices help maintain a steady work force. “People will give me the benefit of the doubt. We tell them what our needs are and people will step up to the plate.”

9. Derco Aerospace
Aircraft parts supplier
364 employees in metro Milwaukee

Communication leads to innovation.
Founded by two French brothers, Derco Aerospace supplies parts and provides mechanical services for military and commercial aircraft. Its customers, which include the air forces of entire nations, are around the globe. As the closely held Milwaukee company has grown substantially, it has fought to keep a flexible, small-company feel, says Jan Kusz, vice president of human resources.

Kusz’s own job is emblematic of that fight. She was hired six years ago, when Derco was less than half its current size, to help change the culture. The main focus has been on communication. Derco employs a wide range of tools to make sure employees are up to date on what is going on at the company, but it also regularly seeks input.

It seems to be working. “They listen very well to employee ideas,” says one worker. “They’re very innovative.” Others praise Derco’s dynamic style, crediting it with retaining a family atmosphere despite its growth.

Executives say a key source of innovation is what the company calls “Gate Review” ­ ad-hoc teams drawn from throughout the organization that examine issues early on and recommend a course of action.

At most companies, the tendency is “to make decisions quickly and then get buy-in [from employees] with implementation,” says Mark Hoehnen, vice president and general manager. “You’ve got to do it just the opposite.” Employees work together to hash out the pros and cons of various business decisions and make a recommendation. “You don’t have to have a dictatorial style because everyone’s on board,” says Hoehnen.

10. American Society for Quality
Professional organization
230 employees in metro Milwaukee

Listening to and empowering employees.
ASQ is a Downtown trade organization that promotes quality improvement; certifies professionals in the field; publishes books, journals and newsletters; provides training; and administers the annual Malcolm Baldridge award that recognizes quality initiatives in organizations around the country.

A key part of the quality movement is listening to and empowering employees. ASQ President Paul Borawski says that over the last 15 years, he’s sought to make ASQ “the epitome of good quality practices.” He’s convinced that employee satisfaction and product quality go hand in hand, although he acknowledges there’s not the wealth of research he’d like to see to prove the point.

So in the tried-and-true tradition of quality measurement, ASQ regularly surveys its employees and looks for ways to improve their satisfaction. Our own survey of employees indicated the association is doing well: Workers praise both the benefits (the health benefit plan scores particularly high) and the atmosphere of professionalism and customer service. “We’re on the cutting edge of learning how to do things better the first time,” says one. At the same time, another praises the balance: “People are treated as having more in their lives than just their work.”