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Best companies provide care, leadership and fun

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Articles - March 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010

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

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

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

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

How did they do it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankie, the office mascot and presidential pup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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