At Arnold & O’Sheridan, a Brookfield engineering firm, management has ditched traditional performance reviews in favor of career development plans that ask employees where they want to be in five years – and how management can help them get there. InPro Corp., a Muskego manufacturer, gives new employees a chance to learn more about their […]

At Arnold & O’Sheridan, a Brookfield engineering firm, management has ditched traditional performance reviews in favor of career development plans that ask employees where they want to be in five years – and how management can help them get there. InPro Corp., a Muskego manufacturer, gives new employees a chance to learn more about their company by pairing them with advisers outside their own departments. At SC Johnson, minority employees are enrolled in a mentoring program – with a twist. They are mentors to senior executives, to help them “get” diversity.

InPro, SC Johnson and Arnold & O’Sheridan are among this year’s Best Places to Work in Milwaukee. But they and the rest of the companies on our list represent something more. Call them the New Utopians.

The employers we’ve named tops in the metropolitan area come in all shapes and sizes – from publicly traded to privately held, for-profit, not-for-profit, large (501 or more employees), medium (101-500) and small (100 or fewer).

Yet for all of their diversity, they share in common an overarching belief that employees are to be valued and trusted, that when they are treated well, they can achieve great things, both for themselves and for the organizations for which they work.

These workplaces aspire to be magnets for employees. “The vision is to be an employer of choice, and we put that as our number-one priority,” says Richard Hansen, president and chief executive officer at Racine’s Johnson Financial Group. (Large, No. 2). “When we’re successful at that, it really seems to be the catalyst that makes everything else work right.”

They view management in a supporting role rather than as the star. “I’m only valuable overhead,” says Ford Titus, chief executive officer of ProHealth Care Inc. (Large, No. 3), the parent of Waukesha Memorial and Oconomowoc Memorial hospitals. Of his office miles away from either facility, Titus adds: “This is not a corporate headquarters. It’s a support-service building.”

They place responsibility on employees, and reward them. “We want risk-taking,” says Steve Ziegler, chief executive officer of InPro Corporation. (Medium, No. 9). “We want new ideas tried. That is the culture. Employees like that type of environment because they feel part of the whole process.”

What is a utopia?
The English thinker Thomas More coined the term 500 years ago to describe a vision of an ideal society. His book by that name has been variously interpreted as fantasy or satire. In 19th century America, religious sects from the Shakers to the Mormons sought to create real-world Utopias – communities set apart from mainstream society and striving to produce a heaven on earth. A hundred years later, hippie communes sought a similar perfection, to the scorn of mainstream society.

If those are our only measure, the companies in our annual survey are a far reach. They aren’t separated from society. After all, they are at the center of one of our core social institutions: work. And the people who work in these organizations live and move in and out of them every day; they aren’t sequestered in a wilderness like residents of a kibbutz, another 20th century utopian experiment.

Erik Olin Wright, a University of Wisconsin sociologist who is frankly skeptical of the workplace-as-utopia construct, points out that the motivation is critically different. The Shaker colonies or the hippie communes, Wright notes, were rooted in fundamental values first. By contrast, he observes, even companies that embrace utopian means – fostering extensive benefits or workplace security or high trust and autonomy for employees – seem to be motivated primarily by the bottom line. When they reason that being good helps them be profitable, “that’s not utopian,” says Wright.

Victor Gray, a trainer for MRA-The Management Association, which advises more than 2,400 employers in southeastern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iowa on human resources issues and which devised the Best Places to Work survey, agrees that employers embrace good employment practices out of pragmatism. Take diversity, which Gray helps companies learn to manage: “I think that companies probably see diversity as a tool to help the organizations get things done,” says Gray. “Diversity is a ‘work smarter, not harder’ tool.”
Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families & Work Institute, a New York-based organization that studies work/family issues and helps promote a family-friendly agenda, agrees: “You never hear business talking about this without saying, ‘It’s good for us. We are not social workers; we are doing this because it’s in our self-interest.” That’s especially true in her experience with small employers the institute has surveyed. “They’re just trying to make work work, for employers and employees,” she says.

Bonni Yordi, MRA’s director of research who designed and administered the survey that led to the creation of this list, is cautious about the concept of utopia. Companies who wind up on our list are driven by “a combination of pragmatism, along with a CEO or a company that has a vision of what really makes an outstanding workplace,” she says. On one hand, “If it doesn’t make good business sense, they will be out of business and they won’t be able to put any practices in place.” Still, she adds, “if it’s just pragmatic, there would be no vision.”
Indeed, over the last four years, as we’ve surveyed and interviewed scores of business owners and executives, they are quick to cite their bottom-line motivations: that it’s generally cheaper to be an employer of choice, more expensive to not make life easier and more rewarding for employees. “If you get people at pretty much any level excited about what they do, the payoff of having someone at the top of their game is off the charts,” says Steve Chamberlin, president of C.G. Schmidt Construction (Medium, No. 10). Adds Jon Vice, chief executive officer of Children’s Hospital (Large, No. 5): “We recruit people because of our image, our pay and our benefits, but we retain people because of the culture we create. We save money by paying more.”

Yet again and again, employers we’ve interviewed – and the people who work for them – have framed their cultures in more than just pragmatic terms. If there’s a favorite word, it’s passion.

Not only that, but they are firmly intentional in making their workplaces what they are. Good workplaces don’t just happen – they are constructed deliberately, like utopian communities. “You don’t just let the world happen,” says sociologist Wright. “You design it with a conscious consideration of how the world should be, usually driven by the desire to create a context for human flourishing.”

Or as Chamberlin at C.G. Schmidt puts it: “The type of work that we’ve done over the last 10 years was very carefully designated as making a difference in the community. The type of people we hire are people who have a passion for the type of work we do.”

To be sure, one person’s utopia is another person’s hell – and sometimes co-workers don’t even seem to be on the same planet. At one workplace that did not make our final list but scored in the top 15 in the employee survey, several employees praised the chief executive officer. One in particular noted “the interest and warmth [he] shows to each employee – from the casual greeting to his caring interest in your own personal interests. He also hand-writes a personal greeting to each employee on their birthday.” Yet amid such upbeat responses, another – at the very same company – complained: “Upper management will never say hello, much less know your name. The morale is awful; no one smiles at you or says hi.”

Indeed, these workplaces aren’t perfect, as even the happiest employees or the most enthusiastic managers acknowledge. But in one way or another, each operates from a vision that seeks to establish them as places where people don’t just work grudgingly but happily – furthering their own goals as well as those of the organization.
What makes them so? Count the ways.

The best workplaces strive to provide for the people who live in them.
The companies we surveyed didn’t all have gold-plated payrolls, perks and benefits, but they all looked for ways to reward employees materially.

Certainly, size helps. SC Johnson (Large, No. 1), the family-owned Racine consumer products company, has long been known not just for substantial pay and benefits but for lots of side benefits, chief among them a trendsetting corporate daycare center that is available as well to the employees of other Johnson family companies, including Johnson Financial Group.

Many companies on our list find ways to tie pay to company performance. SC Johnson’s annual profit sharing payments, to name just one example, are legend in the company’s hometown. More prosaic may be the famed free lunch and reduced-cost breakfast that Northwestern Mutual (Large, No. 7) offers, alongside a whole raft of dollars-and-cents benefits.

But smaller companies look for ways to offer similar rewards. Take InPro Corporation. The Muskego-based manufacturer makes and sells products used in commercial buildings: architectural joints, wall coverings and borders, hand rails and wall guards, window treatments and plastic signs.

InPro offers regular quarterly bonuses and performance incentives, making an effort to “share the wealth,” says its owner, President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Ziegler. But the reward doubles back: In the decade since Ziegler bought InPro from its founders, sales have grown fourfold. And the company’s culture has helped foster a respect for holding down costs. “We’ve really developed the concepts of change and efficiency,” says Ziegler. “When there is foreign competition, we’re in the position to compete.”

Some companies that are generous with employees go against the grain in order to do so. R. A. Smith & Associates Inc. (Medium, No. 2), a Brookfield engineering firm, gets kudos from employees for all sorts of reasons, but one is that, in the face of widespread pressures to do otherwise, the company still pays 100 percent of employees’ health insurance premiums. Others that do so are Chamness Consulting (Small, No. 2) and Stark Investments (Medium, No. 3).

At R.A. Smith, Paul Willis asserts: “I’ve never worked for a company that cares more for the well-being of its employees and has the dedication to provide our clients with the best possible product.” He calls the company “an oasis in the mess of engineering and surveying companies in southeast Wisconsin.”

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Moreover, winning employers generally pay close attention to what employees want – and respond accordingly. At Johnson Financial, for example, a company-wide Associate Services Committee, made up of representative employees, monitors what people want and need and helps put together special events and perks for employees – from a company store selling the products of sibling company SC Johnson at cost to a dry-cleaning service that picks up clothing from employees at Johnson Financial’s downtown Racine headquarters.

The best workplaces foster an egalitarian environment .
The word “associates” instead of “employees” has become de rigueur throughout corporate America, and Milwaukee is no different. Cynics might consider the trend – one of many borrowed from Japan going back to the 1980s, when management gurus marveled at the apparent success of the Asian economies – little more than window dressing.

Beneath the choice of words, however, employees at the winning companies repeatedly describe employers that don’t just call them associates but treat them as such. As often, they praise their companies – public or private – for treating workers “like family” and for fostering a “family atmosphere.”

At Stark Investments, says Jessica Walker, “we treat each other like family, and our real family comes first – for everyone.” Adds Brent O’Neil: “Everyone works together to get the job done, whether you’re a general or a private.”

For many employees, the description of “family” is no accident. They say their employers respect their need to balance work and family life. At employee-owned Robert W. Baird & Co. (Large, No. 4), for example, one worker tells us: “They let you have the time you need for family crises without getting fired.” A co-worker, Chris Rossman, describes her own part-time, job-sharing arrangement that allows her to be at home mornings and afternoons when her daughter leaves and returns from school.

Froedtert Hospital (Large, No. 10) pays special attention to breaking down hierarchies that divide groups of people who work there – nursing, housekeepers, clerical workers, professionals and doctors. “We use the term ‘staff,’ ” says Chief Executive Officer William Petasnick, extending the term both to doctors, who are not employees, and to workers on the hospital’s payroll. “Healthcare can be very hierarchical,” says Petasnick. “Physicians are highly trained. But it isn’t about them. ‘Employee’ sets up a class system.”

SC Johnson established a distinctive mentoring program five years ago in which minority employees – as well as women and gays and lesbians – are paired as mentors to senior executives and now other managers. When Christine Metcalf served as such a mentor to Steven Carter, then director of product supply finance, both learned from the experience. “It was good because we would challenge each other on some assumptions we were making,” says Metcalf. Carter adds that he found the experience “a real good opportunity to get some perspective different than my own because Christine’s circumstances are different than mine.”

Yet egalitarianism and a family atmosphere don’t translate to undemanding. Every one of the com-panies in our survey was, arguably, a demanding employer. As Mike Erwin, owner and president of Tailored Label Products (Small, No. 8), puts it: “We’re family oriented and supportive, but we still have very high expectations.”

Generally, though, employees we heard from embrace high expectations, as long as they are realistic and fair. At Arnold & O’Sheridan (Small, No. 9), for instance, one employee tells us: “If someone asks you to work extra, you are always confident that they are working extra as well.”

The best workplaces offer people a path on which to rise.
This year’s survey asked some extra questions that focused on young workers, older workers and diversity. These separate categories aren’t ranked; instead, we selected a few companies as particularly outstanding (see “Top Workplaces,” page 48). In the process, we found a number of workplaces that seemed to offer substantial opportunities for career growth on the job and have taken thoughtful approaches to moving employees along in their careers.

Last year, Arnold & O’Sheridan Inc. dispensed with its standard employee performance reviews. The old forms it threw out “sat and nitpicked everything you did wrong,” says Kim Angeli, the engineering firm’s human resources manager. They were “report cards,” adds Brian Hanson, president of Arnold & O’Sheridan. “The managers hated review time, and that’s not the way it should be.”

So A&O changed. “If there’s an issue now, you address it today,” says Angeli. “And if you do something good, you address it today.” And in place of the old forms, it took a new approach.

“We do career development plans,” explains Steve Roloff, director of structural engineering. “We ask, ‘Where do you want to be five years from now? What do you need to get you there?’ ”

Twenty-three-year-old Kristin Gallo went to work for InPro Corp. in Muskego less than a year ago. An estimator who helps the manufacturer of specialized building materials calculate the cost of projects on which it bids, Gallo had an associate’s degree in interior design and a few years at other employers on her résumé already.

At InPro, she found herself in a sprawling company with nearly 300 employees. For many, the experience might have been intimidating. But InPro assigned Gallo a mentor, Brad Scheuerell, 30, a three-year veteran from InPro’s sales department.

Scheuerell helped her get to know others outside her department, giving her better insight into her new employer. Gallo values the chance it offered, as she puts it, “getting to know all the ropes of the company and how they fit together.” Scheuerell liked his role, too: “It’s nice to have somebody outside your department that you can go to,” he says. “Plus, it exposes you to other areas of the company. I wish I would have had one when I was new.”
The experience only confirmed Gallo’s favorable impression of InPro, where informal hot dog or chili lunches every other week, approachable management and incentive programs that include regular bonuses for meeting internal performance goals add up to make the company “a very good company to work for,” says Gallo. “It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.”
Small employers and large employers each offer distinctive advantages to people building their careers. At large companies such as Robert W. Baird, employees point out the opportunities they’ve had to advance through various departments.

Employees at Neroli Salon & Spa (Medium, No. 1) rave about the training opportunities, the teamwork and the feedback from owner and Chief Executive Officer Susan Haise. “For a position that many would consider ‘entry level,’ I’ve never received such comprehensive training for any other employment,” says Amy Walia.

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin hires a number of entry-level nurses, says Jon Vice, chief executive officer. But it’s also become a place where people can work their way up in the healthcare field. Employees who start out in less-skilled jobs can earn scholarships to get a nursing degree and keep going. That’s on top of a tuition reimbursement program that awards up to $2,500 a year.

But some small companies offer surprisingly similar opportunities. Advertising agency Boelter & Lincoln (Small, No. 10) has a track record for taking on interns, then, when possible, hiring them for full-time openings if they work out. “We’d much rather have them stay on and grow with us,” says Terrie Treland, vice president and chief financial officer. Boelter’s own president, Jill Brzeski , started out at the firm, left for a time, then later returned.

Because of Boelter’s small size – 35 employees – “you’re given a lot of opportunities,” says Brzeski. “You’re not pigeonholed.”

Boelter also finds distinctive ways to promote originality and creativity. The most offbeat: Company offices are decorated by their occupants, using a $200 company allowance. One looks like a farmstead, another like a McDonald’s, a third like the bedroom of a teenage boy.
Visual Systems Inc. (Small, No. 1) is another employer that offers opportunities to advance. The company, which prints transparency documents primarily for use in schools, undertakes an extensive orientation program that for the first two weeks focuses just on getting employees all around the company to learn about each department, not just the ones in which they work. “You never get a chance to orient someone once they’ve been here for a while,” says John Krupo, vice president.

Even more striking, though, is the way VSI promotes from within. Just ask the last four executive secretaries – each one has moved up to new jobs in the company.

But for someone who wants a very clear path to career growth, it might be hard to outdo PyraMax Bank (Medium, No. 6). For every position in the organization except the senior management jobs, PyraMax has identified a series of steps – mainly skills-training programs – that employees can complete to qualify. The Greenfield-based bank’s Career Pathing Manual spells it all out.

PyraMax implemented the career pathing approach about six years ago, says Monica Baker, senior vice president for human resources. “There was such a run on people wanting to opt out of their positions” to get raises, says Baker. “We didn’t want people to opt out of their jobs just to get more money.” So PyraMax tied training to pay. Learn more and you qualify to earn more – and, if there’s an opening higher up, to move into that job.

In our past surveys, PyraMax has consistently scored high for workplace training, and one reason may be its unusual no-layoff policy. “We don’t believe in laying people off or terminating them” just because of an economic slowdown, says Baker. When things get slack, workers are encouraged to use the time to get more training instead. Says Kathryn Koplinski: “This company makes it a point to help you achieve your goals and sets a high standard to follow.”

The best workplaces have a vision.
In the end, though, what characterizes all of the Best Places to Work in this year’s survey is a sense of mission. They are relentlessly intentional about what they want to be – and it’s not just about profit.

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At Kahler Slater (Medium, No. 5), the Downtown architectural firm, top executives talk freely about tapping into the things that employees are “passionate” about, and employees echo that frame of mind in their comments. “People here take great pride in our collective work, and I’ve not often seen that in other environments,” one employee tells us. Adds another: “I commute over an hour each day to work, not because I love driving but because the people I work with have great values and vision. I feel my contributions matter, and opportunities are readily available to reach my potential for growth.” What’s perhaps most striking about those sentiments, however, is how widespread they were among our winners. “We are a values-based organization that keeps its mission and vision in front of all associates and encourages us to push for excellence,” enthuses an employee at All Saints

Healthcare System Inc. (Large, No. 6).
Indeed, among healthcare institutions, All Saints is not alone. Altogether, four local hospital systems are on our large-company top 10 list: ProHealth Care, Children’s Hospital, All Saints and Froedtert. Two more – Aurora Health Care and Covenant Healthcare Systems – were behind the top 10 just a hair.

These companies tend to like lists, and their lists are often demanding. The insurer Assurant Health (Large, No. 9) has constructed and defined three “core principles” that guide its workplace culture: intellectual honesty (people rely on data and open-minded, rigorous inquiry to guide decisions), personal responsibility (people are accountable for their results and committed to specific company goals) and excellence at what matters (people understand what they need to do that’s most critical and strive to do better and better). “The effort made to ensure that employees understand the company vision and how to achieve this goal is beyond anything I have seen at other workplaces,” responds one Assurant employee.

Other examples abound. Froedtert abides by four “core values”: talent, teamwork, stewardship and respect. SC Johnson operates under a set of principles, “This We Believe,” first set down a quarter-century ago. These principles emphasize putting employees first, ensuring customer goodwill and vowing responsibility to the public, to communities and even to promoting global understanding.

Family ownership may help that company embrace such lofty values. The same is true at Johnson Financial, which, like SC Johnson, is owned by Racine’s Johnson family but is corporately separate.

Certainly, privately owned firms are more free from the sort of bottom-line attention that makes too many publicly traded firms think only about short-term quarterly profits. But private ownership is no panacea; plenty of privately owned companies are miserable workplaces.

And indeed, a few publicly owned companies are on our list, demonstrating that Wall Street doesn’t have to be a barrier to good workplace practices. One is Assurant Health; another is GE Healthcare Financial Services (Medium, No. 8), through its parent corporation, General Electric.

The third is Harley-Davidson Inc. (Large, No. 8). Harley’s reputation as a good workplace ranges far and wide, and especially notable is a close union-management relationship that goes back two decades. Workers embrace the company’s approach; Harley, in the words of one employee, “respects its workforce as its most valuable asset.”

“You clearly can satisfy the Wall Street analysts and satisfy your employees,” says Harold Scott, Harley’s vice president of human resources. “To make that happen, though, your employees have to understand that there are a number of stakeholders in any business – employees, stockholders, suppliers and others.”

Harley, too, lists its values: Tell the truth, keep your promises, be fair, encourage intellectual curiosity and respect the individual. “Our values are the best combination of striving for utopia and doses of realism,” Scott concludes. “If you look at those things in totality, there’s an inspiration and an aspiration that has utopian feelings about it. But it’s real.”

One person who’s had a chance to see the transformation of modern workplaces up close is Marc Gunther, a senior writer at Fortune magazine and author of the book Faith and Fortune: The Quiet Revolution to Reform American Business. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Gunther praised major corporations for becoming more open with information, signing on to tough codes of conduct for worker health and safety in the Third World and embracing environmentalism and even gay rights in the form of domestic partner benefits for employees.

“These are companies that really view their role as serving – not only serving their customers but serving their employees, serving their communities and serving some sense of the greater good,” Gunther said by telephone from his home office in suburban Washington, D.C. “During the dot-com era, having a great place to work was about perks – bringing your pet to the office or having a concierge to take your laundry. Now we’re in a radically different climate. The collapse of the stock market, the corporate scandals and September 11 have all changed the world of work. Now having a great place to work means creating a company where you can have a sense of purpose. It’s a company where you can bring your whole self to work, be engaged by the mission the company is pursuing and be passionate about what you do.”

Leaders of such companies “are practical utopians – yes,” says Gunther. “They are running their companies based on ideas of trust and respect and partnership. In a climate that is so cynical about business, that takes some courage of its own.”

Perhaps no one, however, has the vantage point of Dan Steininger, chief executive officer of Catholic Knights Insurance Society (Medium, No. 4). Catholic Knights has consistently scored well in past Milwaukee Magazine best places to work surveys. Employee comments tell why: “A positive, congenial work atmosphere”; “Extremely competent people running the show.” And perhaps most tellingly: “What I like best is that I don’t feel like I am being ‘watched.’ I am trusted to perform my job to the best of my abilities.”

But Steininger is more than a corporate chieftain. He is also the grandson of Dan Hoan, one of Milwaukee’s legendary socialist mayors. As the literal heir to an icon of our progressive heritage, is he, along with his colleagues among the best places to work, the spiritual heir to that utopian tradition?

Steininger demurs at the suggestion. Too often, he notes, the utopians of old worked from the top down. “They knew what was best for people,” he observes. And old-style management suffers, in a different way, from similarly misguided views of human nature: the belief “that you can’t trust employees.”

A lawyer by profession whose undergraduate degree is in philosophy, Steininger sees things differently. “Human beings motivate themselves,” he says. “If you devise a work environment where people have more control over what they get to do and they feel the freedom to create, to serve, to help customers, to help build a company, it’s just like they’re learning to walk. When it’s their goals, they’re going to do better than if they’re imposed from the top down.”

How we did it
The best work places methodology.

This is the fourth time Milwaukee Magazine has teamed up with MRA: The Management Association to assess the state of Milwaukee workplaces. MRA, based in Waukesha, serves 2,300 member companies in Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iowa, offering a wide range of human resources training and consulting services.

Our report is based on an extensive two-part survey process designed with Milwaukee Magazine’s input by MRA’s research director, Bonni Yordi. Part One asks organizations about their policies and practices. Yordi and her staff constructed a detailed questionnaire soliciting information from each company. That survey’s 507 questions cover nine categories. Part Two consisted of an employee satisfaction survey. The policies and practices survey and the employee survey each counted for 50 percent of a company’s final score.

MRA and Milwaukee Magazine ­repeatedly contacted companies to participate. Initially, 183 started the survey; in the end, 81 completed the survey on a dedicated, secure Web site maintained by MRA. Participating companies fell into three size categories: 100 or fewer workers, 101 to 500 workers and more than 500 workers.

A total of 43 companies (15 large, 14 medium, 14 small) scored high enough on the first survey to qualify for the next step: an employee satisfaction survey. Although that survey was short, the questions were ones established through extensive research to be powerful predictors of employee satisfaction, says Yordi.

For each of those companies, MRA calculated the number of employees needed for a scientifically accurate sample and gave each company a key to use to select a scientifically random sample. Employees were then directed to a secure MRA Web site to fill out their surveys. No one from any company saw the surveys of their own employees.

A total of 3,391 employees responded to the survey, representing anywhere from 78 percent to 100 percent of the employees who were asked. At 38 companies, more than 90 percent responded, an unusually high response rate. (MRA set a minimum threshold of 75 percent response to qualify; only one company was excluded from further consideration when the employee response fell below that minimum.)

Altogether, MRA put 480 hours into designing, executing and analyzing the survey, says Yordi. The final top 10 lists in each size category reflect organizations that not only qualified based on policies and practices but scored highest in employee satisfaction as well.

This year’s survey also asked some extra, optional questions to look at specific practices aimed at new hires, older workers and promoting workplace diversity. For diversity, 21 companies answered questions; 50 companies filled out questions about beginning a career; and 26 companies answered questions about their programs for older workers. We’ve singled out some companies for special attention in those areas but did not rank any of those individually.

As in the past, neither MRA nor Quad/Graphics, which owns Milwaukee Magazine, was eligible to take part since we could not objectively consider them.

Erik Gunn has written all of Milwaukee Magazine’s Best Places to Work stories.