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Articles - March 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Top: Tina Styles (front) Deborah Douma (rear) file daily material requests for job sites at Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating in Salem. Bottom: Jeremy Ballard solders pipe at OreFab, the in-house fabrication facility of Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating.

Clatsop Community Bank is a fairly new institution, just opened in the spring of 2008, and as a result it has far fewer troubled loans on its books than others in the industry. But executive vice president Joe Schulte says workplace culture has been as crucial as timing in enabling the bank to succeed. “We don’t hire for experience first,” he says. “We hire for culture first, capacity to learn second, and experience third.”

A similar ethic prevails at Ruby Receptionist (No. 21, Small), the fast-growing Portland business that added eight jobs in 2009 and expanded its benefits package. CEO Jill Nelson created the new position “culture czar” last August to coordinate team events and welcome new hires.

Of course, the majority of Oregon businesses were in no position to hire anyone last year. Even some of the 100 Best had to make cuts in 2009.

Beaverton-based Axium, a software development company specializing in software for the architectural and engineering industry, laid off 13 people in February 2009 yet still scored high enough later in the year to place No. 24 among medium-sized companies in Oregon. The layoffs caused “a lot of anguish for all of us,” says chief marketing officer Cathy Mills. “We had no experience with layoffs. We researched how to do it and how not to do it and we just tried to be completely open and honest with everyone.”

Even after the layoffs, part owners Cathy Mills and Alan Mills found the numbers still weren’t adding up. They had to make further cuts, so they decreased salaries from the top down. They cut pay 20% for themselves and 10% for managers but kept pay steady for all non-management workers.

Then when it turned out they had done better than expected, they rewarded the entire Axium team with bonuses.

Left to right: Oregon Cascade Plumbing’s leadership team Walt Haskins, Josh Welborn and John Welborn.

What do these small stories tell us about the larger story of maintaining a healthy workplace culture when times get tough?

The answer varies from business to business, but one trait the top performers clearly share is leadership. It would be hard to find three leaders more different in style than John Clark of Stamp-Connection, Cheryl Hughes Gaulke of Northwest Newborn Specialists and Josh Welborn of Oregon Cascade Plumbing & Heating. What they share is an ability to motivate employees and keep them happy. Whether it’s charisma or a commitment to quietly leading by example, the intangible qualities that add up to leadership produce measurable results in workplace satisfaction.

This year’s 100 Best results bear that out. Of the six categories that contribute to a company’s score, the category that held up strongest this year, bucking a strong downward trend, was decision-making and trust. That’s a direct vote of confidence in an organization’s leaders, and the ethic it represents is the polar opposite of Wall Street fat cats rewarding themselves with bonuses while unemployment soars.

It’s challenging enough to achieve mutual trust in the workplace during the best of times. To gain it in the worst of times takes commitment.


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