Why do some lucky people love their jobs? The 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon provide a thousand answers, large and small
The competition to be the best keeps getting tougher. In this year’s 12th annual 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon survey, 260 private and public companies, nonprofits and government agencies participated along with 29,049 of their employees. That’s the largest number of companies and employee participants since the launch of the 100 Best list. How do companies get on the list? Getting the big things right — full health coverage, health clubs, promotions, education — is important. But it’s also about the little things: patience, caring — a well-placed bad pun. Here are 100 companies that get it right in large and small ways, along with five stories of what it’s like to work at a 100 Best company and a look at how you get to No. 1. The competition might be tough, but the rewards are sweet.
Mikkie Buckstein, Transcriptionist
Company: NW Newborn Specialists PC
Rank: #3 Small Company
The best thing: healing teamwork
Fifteen doctors watch, worry, operate, analyze, laugh, cry, come and go at the intensive care unit for newborns at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital in North Portland. Mikkie Buckstein spends eight hours a day inside the doctors’ heads. As the transcriptionist for Northwest Newborn Specialists, the physicians group that runs the unit, Buckstein converts the doctors’ dictations about their tiny patients into typed notes for the infants’ charts.
“I hear them at their best and at their worst,” says Buckstein, 63, who has scribed for 20 years at Northwest Newborn, the No. 3 Small Company on this year’s 100 Best list.
The tension reaches its height when an extremely sick baby, up to 17 weeks premature, is hooked up to a bypass machine, which acts as its heart and lungs for as many as 14 days. The strained dictations during that period stretch out to two pages and may leave Buckstein hanging, along with a baby’s life, overnight. Other times, when Buckstein goes into the ward to collect baskets of tapes the doctors leave for her, they may be bouncing around on a high. Head doc Larry Cheldelin is singing folksy lullabies. Somebody no bigger than a summer squash is growing again, adding ounces. Cheldelin’s tune might make it onto the tape, along with a short paragraph of an update.
Whatever the emotion of the moment, all 37 employees at Northwest Newborn find great purpose in what they do, throughout the circle of tasks that starts with doctors and loops back through the administrative staff to Buckstein.
“We’re making decisions on an 84-year time frame [the average life expectancy],” Cheldelin says of his group, which runs neo-natal units at three other hospitals. “What more can you ask for?”
Purpose only tells part of the story at Northwest Newborn. The firm invests a lot of energy in developing good communication and relationships in the office — keeping a consultant on retainer to counsel employees about personal challenges and offering seminars with titles such as “No Fault Negotiation.”
With so much at stake in the business, “You have to have really clean relationships,” Cheldelin says.
The office is also infused with humor, to diffuse the stress.
“You have to have a sense of humor,” Buckstein says. Physician Martha Graham is Buckstein’s favorite to transcribe because she isn’t afraid to indulge in garblespeak and jokes. “Thank goodness for Martha,” Buckstein says.
Buckstein, who listens to <i>Pirates of the Caribbean</i> theme music and sits under several posters of Johnny Depp while she types, has been known to pass along a barb or a dirty joke. With a twinkle in her eye, she notes that the office trainings have also included sessions on proper workplace conduct.
Cheldelin says training is critical. “It’s important that people don’t feel intimidated,” he says.
He is, however, willing to be embarrassed: He donned tights to pose as an elf at the company Christmas party a few years back, to the delight of his co-workers. It’s those kinds of things that bond a high-flying group of doctors with the office staff that looks after them. “It’s a beautiful marriage,” Cheldelin says.
— Oakley Brooks
David Rich, CEO
Company: Reitmeier Mechanical
Rank: #10 Small Company
The best thing: seeing bad humor in air conditioning
What would it be like to have the quintessential Lion head your company? The staff at Reitmeier Mechanical lives it every day. David Rich, the CEO at Reitmeier, which installs and maintains heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in the Portland area, seems to have walked straight out of a promotional clip for the old service club.
At 61, he has boundless energy, goes out of his way to heap praise on employees, has a tendency to go off on winding monologues and his humor is so bad it’s good. (He’s also heavily involved in the Beaverton Lions.) His employees eat up his act. “Let’s just say his humor is a running joke around here,” says Mike Nichols, a project manager with Reitmeier.
“I take my job seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously,” says Rich, who has deep-set eyes behind his glasses, a shiny crown of a head and a quick burst of a laugh.
Rich’s style, along with expertise from a long career as a civilian manager in the Navy and consultant in Ohio for Intergraph, has done good things for Reitmeier, the No. 10 Small Company. He and stepson Jeff Nusz bought the company from founder Gerald Reitmeier in late 2002 and in each of the last two years the company has grown sales at least 35%.
In addition to keeping things light, Rich and Nusz — a longtime Reitmeier employee — free workers up to attack complex jobs and stir up new business. “They don’t micromanage,” Nichols says. That’s especially critical in Rich’s case since he admits he doesn’t know the first thing about HVAC systems. He generally joins technical discussions at Reitmeier only to interject an easy pun to cut the tension in the room. (“He’ll often start the day with ‘A punny thing happened on the way to work,’” says office manager Chris Sietz.)
Rich has also added a new level of professionalism and organization at the company, based in a Tigard office park. On arrival, he codified new safety and human resources policies. Then last year when Nusz wanted to go after an Energy Trust award by installing the most number of efficient rooftop cooling systems in the state, Rich suggested they motivate employees by offering to spread the $15,000 prize among all 36 employees. Reitmeier eventually won. “You wouldn’t believe the power of 36 people all moving in one direction,” says Nusz.
As a big thinker, Rich is dangerously fast in coming up with ideas and pushing them out into the company. Nusz recently suggested that a newsletter might help Reitmeir communicate better with customers. Rich had a prototype done in two hours. His free time, mapped out on computer printouts he’s constantly updating, is jampacked with volunteer obligations — Associated General Contractors, youth leadership forums, in addition to Lions. “I’m hyperactive,” Rich says.
Overall, employees say Rich is navigating well the tricky waters of shared leadership, allowing Nusz to run the technical side of the business while Rich takes care of financial and organizational matters. “He trusts me and I trust him,” Rich says.
Rich says his style is rooted in the humble beginnings from which he rose — the son of a truck driver and a mill hand in Southeast Portland. He’s kept to offering full medical coverage for all employees and family members, even as that tab has risen. And part of the reason he moved from Ohio to take on Reitmeier, effectively his third career, was to provide a stable financial future for Nusz, 37, and his young family.
He’s told his stepson he’ll stay at the helm of Reitmeier for 10 years. “I’ll keep doing it as long as it’s still fun.”
— Oakley Brooks
Terry Mackey, Supervisor
Company: Adroit Construction
Rank: #42 Small Company
The best thing: safety comes first
Adroit Construction began a dramatic shift three years ago, installing an extensive safety regime rare among small construction firms. It tested Terry Mackey at first: At one time, he had been resistant to caution.
His success, however, in eventually embracing safety at the 100-employee, Ashland-based company has mirrored Adroit’s rise. Sales topped $42 million in growing Southern Oregon and Northern California in 2005, and 26-year-old Adroit, the No. 42 Small Company, has established itself as a safe and great place to work.
Mackey, 33, was a young superintendent when Adroit began focusing on safety practices around the job site to control its workers’ comp premiums. It started offering training sessions and rewarding attendees, and hired a full-time safety officer. As a laborer Mackey had never wanted to tether himself, for instance, to walk along a high wall. “I bucked it,” he says.
Heavily policing jobsites, part of the new superintendent’s job as an overseer, was tough for him.
But Mackey, who cut short his wrestling and baseball career at Sacramento’s Sierra College to enter the construction trade, realized there was a lot of value in caution, so he changed his tune, started laying down the rules and helped spread the safety ethic among his co-workers.
“They’ve turned the corner,” says Mackey, sitting in a small trailer as two of his men tar-paper the roof of an emerging health clinic outside. “Now, when a ladder is tied off [to prevent sliding], I’ve got three or four guys checking to see that it’s secured. They realize that if they fall it’s going straight to the company’s bottom line.”
Improved safety has helped that bottom line. Adroit’s co-owners Bob Mayers and Steve Lawrence, who also helped found the company, estimate fewer accidents and strengthened practices lowered premiums by $55,000 last year.
But just as significant is that Adroit’s policies are now seen less as a hassle and more as a demonstration of compassion.
“I want to be able to retire someday with all my fingers,” says carpenter Richard Steever, 47. “I like that they care about my safety.” Steever has stuck with Adroit for seven years, and in an industry that sees a lot of turnover “that says a lot.”
Mayers and Lawrence, who named Adroit after the adjective meaning skillful and resourceful, have also been keeping their emp-loyees busy in recent years. “I can count the days off I’ve had on one hand,” Mackey says.
That’s a good thing to builders. The landscape is dotted with more than 700 Adroit-built structures, from the new Southern Oregon University dorms in Ashland, to the Kingsley Air Force Base flight simulator in Klamath Falls to the rising Siskiyou Community Health Center near Cave Junction, which Mackey and his crew were battling the rain to get up this winter.
In these flush times, Mayers and Lawrence distributed hefty profit-sharing checks at each of last year’s quarterly all-hands meetings at the wide, ranch-style Adroit headquarters. And, in a fitting marriage of mission, they’ve taken to honoring safe employees at those meetings as well.
Mackey’s experience at Adroit has caused him to shift his thinking entirely on the future of construction. When he was a younger laborer and his back hurt every night, Mackey told his kids not to follow his career path. Now, he’s given them a green light. “I’ll just steer them to get a little more education so they don’t have to start at the bottom,” he says.
— Oakley Brooks
Clyde Toedtemeier, Branch clerk
Company: Oregon Community Credit Union
Rank: #10 Large Company
The best thing: a niche for people lovers
In his nearly 70 years on this earth, Clyde Toedtemeier has worked quite a few jobs. From pastor to janitor, gas station attendant to carpenter, the Brownsville native figures they’ve all been preparing him for his current — and final — paid gig at Oregon Community Credit Union’s flagship branch in Eugene.
His business card says “branch clerk,” but most people refer to him as the “greeter.” More apropos descriptions of his job would be “host” or even “resident grandfather.”
“What I’m supposed to do is be observing. But I like people so my job is an easy job,” Toedtemeier says. “I observe people as they come in. I talk to people. Bank robbers don’t like to be observed.”
Toedtemeier, still working 40-hour weeks while other guys his age have their feet up, came to the job without computer skills. Oregon Community, the No. 10 Large Company, found a place for him where that wouldn’t matter much. Toedtemeier learned enough on the job that he can help out the tellers when there’s a long line by handling people with deposit-only checks. He doesn’t think he has the aptitude to ever graduate to a teller position.
And that’s just as well. It’s difficult to picture Toedtemeier trapped behind the counter all day. From his low desk, he’s quick to eject himself from the wheeled office chair and bound over to the door, hauling it open when he sees just the tip of a walking cane come into view. He’s springing over to the safe deposit box area or steering loan applicants back to meet with the personal banking representatives. And whenever he gets a chance he’s showing off what he calls his rogue’s gallery, snapshots of his 10 great-grandchildren and his wife of 52 years, Donna.
A back injury eight years ago made Toedtemeier eligible for some worker retraining. Working with a job counselor, he decided that putting his people skills to work at a bank might be the thing to do. He made appointments with three banks and credit unions for informational interviews. But when he finished the one with Oregon Community, which has 12 branches, 90,000 members and 252 employees, he knew that’s where he wanted to work.
Robin Obermire, branch manager, created the job for him and he’s been at the helm of the information desk for 6½ years now. “He’s part of our exceptional member service,” Obermire says.
What sold Toedtemeier on the company and what keeps him jazzed about the job is the people. Managers are approachable and genuine and he’s part of a team that cares as much as he does about meeting the needs of the members who walk in every day.
Once he turns 70 in April, finishes vesting in his 401(k) plan in May and celebrates his 53rd wedding anniversary in June, Toedtemeier says, he’ll think about retiring. In the meantime, he says he gets paid well — raises every year for the six years he’s been on the job, plus he gets to participate in the annual bonus plan. “And I’ve got 50, 60, 70 good stories about the relationships I’ve formed here.”
A bearded man walks up to his desk and Toedtemeier gets up to help, clapping him on the back and leaning in for small talk as the two walk over to the safe deposit boxes. Turns out, the guy is one of Toedtemeier’s stories.
“When he first came in there, he was tough,” Toedtemeier says, nodding toward the door after he’d gone. “Nobody could meet his needs. Now he’s a pleasant fellow. He tried not to be when he first came in here. But I did my part. I just liked him.”
— Christina Williams
Jane Savage, Senior designer
Rank: #28 Large Company
The best thing: working with passion
It was the lacrosse net that clinched it for Jane Savage.
She caught sight of one at a gym on the Nike campus when she was there interviewing in 1997. She loves the sport. It was a sign. She wanted the job.
Turns out that Beaverton-based Nike, the No. 28 Large Company, wanted her, too. The moving company called her apartment in New York before the human resources folks got through with the official offer. Savage left the East Coast and hasn’t looked back.
What’s kept the union fresh is the succession of new job titles Savage has held along the way. “My last three jobs at Nike didn’t exist before I took them,” says Savage. For a woman who says she’s got “startup in her blood” the freshness has a lot to do with why she still loves where she works.
Her cube on the fourth floor of the Mia Hamm building in Nike’s north campus is studded with dozens of Nike shoes and Planet of the Apes figurines. Like Nike’s new CEO, Mark Parker, Savage collects toys.
Her current title is senior designer for Considered, a new Nike brand and initiative charged with infusing the rest of the company with sustainable practices. It’s a key strategy for Nike, part of the sportswear giant’s overall push toward corporate responsibility, but sustainability also happens to be one of Savage’s passions.
A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design who came to Nike as a children’s shoe designer, she is in sponge mode at the moment, soaking up information about sustainable practices and looking for ways to design them into Nike products. “I’m doing research to validate ideas that have been stewing in my mind for a while,” is how Savage puts it.
Sure Nike, with its $22 billion market cap and 26,000 employees (6,000 of them at HQ in Beaverton), boasts a swank campus, on-site childcare and fitness facilities that would make an Olympic athlete salivate, but to Savage, getting to work with her passion trumps the lacrosse net that drew her there in the first place.
“How many companies would give you license to be in a startup and take it where you want to take it?” she asks. “The ideas at Nike come from the bottom. As long as you can socialize your idea — that’s a term we use a lot here — it will survive. I’m living proof that it can happen. It’s not easy but it’s exciting and challenging.”
Trying to describe what it’s like to work at Nike, Savage refers to illustrations by Richard Scarry — maybe because she has a 19-month-old son — that show busy downtowns abuzz with activity. “People are always on the go, they’re making things happen,” she says. “Corporate America might not be for everyone, but packaged at Nike it’s pretty good.”
— Christina Williams
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