If one theme can be said to have emerged from this year’s search for the region’s Great Places to Work, our first since April 2005, it was this: Employers are listening to their work force. At Sycom Technologies, an employee-initiated electronics waste and recycling program has actually begun to turn a profit for the technology-services firm, while The Supply Room Companies offers bonuses for suggestions that bolster the company’s bottom line. All the businesses in our top 15 take staffers’ suggestions very seriously, whether they come during performance reviews or via an employee-satisfaction survey.
We began our own survey by obtaining a list of private employers in the Richmond region with 50 or more employees from the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. After adding more than a few businesses to the roster, we then sent out a survey to more than 450 area companies, asking them questions about everything from health insurance to professional development. The final selections for this year’s list were made by a panel of experts: Lee Weisiger, managing principal at local human-resources consulting firm The Titan Group; Dr. Richard Coughlan, the associate dean for graduate and executive programs at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business; and Dr. Michael W. Pitts, an associate professor in the department of management at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. (Coughlan did not have a hand in scoring UR, while Pitts did not weigh in on VCU Health System.)
Each company was scored (from one to five) by at least two panelists in six categories — family-friendly environment, employee development, compensation, diversity, insurance and special perks. The panelists then met to discuss their top picks and re-examine any entries for which further discussion was needed. The 15 companies that emerged (including repeat winners CarMax, Collegiate School, the University of Richmond, Philip Morris USA and Genworth Financial) are profiled in no particular order on the following pages, where you’ll also find a lighthearted look at teambuilding, a story on companies that assist employees who are caregivers and an article on messy desks that might just make you feel better about your own. It sure worked for our office full of disaster-zone desktops.
Type of Business: Financial Services
Year Established: 2004 (previously GE Financial, with Richmond roots tracing back to 1871)
Richmond-Based Employees: 1,621
Average Starting Salary: $48,000
Senior IT systems analyst Brenda Brown-Morris has made a visit to Genworth Financial’s fitness center part of her regular routine ever since the facility opened in 1984. “I started going because it is so convenient,” Morris says. “I used to work out every day but now I typically work out three days a week.”
The aerobics classes at Genworth actually inspired Morris to become a certified aerobics instructor. Now, 10 years later, she teaches her coworkers the basics of fitness during a lunchtime class one day a week and two classes after hours. “Being an instructor makes me responsible to myself,” she explains. “I have to go to class.”
Genworth provides employees with a benefit plan that includes various bonuses, flex time, an on-site chair-massage therapist, tuition reimbursement and a child-care subsidy. Genworth also allows employees to work with community-outreach programs by volunteering their talents, with many Genworth associates volunteering during the workday. Last year, more than 300 volunteers worked daily over an eight-week period to build a home for Habitat for Humanity, all during work hours. Employees can raise money for a favorite charity by volunteering 25 hours or more outside of work. Genworth will award a grant of $250 for that employee’s charity in recognition of the employee’s volunteer commitment. In 2006, more than two-thirds of the company’s global employees participated in volunteer projects.
“We also have a skill-based volunteer program where our top talent is sent to nonprofits to tackle a problem,” says Melissa Skottegaard, Genworth’s vice president for community relations. “We currently have volunteers working with the William Byrd Community House on a business issue. It’s a way for us to look at developing our own people and also help a nonprofit in a way they may not have access to.”
Sycom Technologies LLC
Type of Business: Technology Services
Year Established: 1996
Richmond-Based Employees: 96
Average Starting Salary: Not provided
A common business maxim asserts that no one makes a bad recommendation to a friend. If that’s true, the word must be spreading fast about Sycom Technologies LLC, where 99 percent of employees who recently participated in an internal survey said they’d tell a friend that it was a great place to work.
The secret, according to Paula Gulak, Sycom’s vice president of marketing and business development, isn’t all that complicated. “We ... laugh that the employees run the asylum,” says Gulak, noting that the company has an open-door policy, offers constant opportunities for employee input and follows a flat-management style, which strives for as few levels of supervision as possible within the chain of command.
Having been in business for just over a decade, the Richmond-based information-technology firm is a relative newcomer compared with some others on this year’s list of Great Places to Work. But with a 94.5 percent retention rate, Sycom is pushing the competition by providing first-rate benefits such as paying 100 percent of health-care premiums with dental and vision coverage, while instilling a true sense of empowerment in staffers. “There is a lot of freedom to let people do what is right for a client and take on that responsibility,” Gulak says.
Employee-initiated programs include an electronics waste and recycling program that generates more than 30 tons of reusable equipment each year and actually has begun to turn a profit, and workers participate in community initiatives such as the Bowl-a-Thon for Junior Achievement. Supporting those efforts means as much to the work force as health care and retirement planning, says Gulak.
The Supply Room Companies
Type of Business: Office Supplies and Furniture
Year Established: 1988
Number of Richmond-Based Employees: 210
Average Starting Salary: $30,672
The Supply Room Companies, a growing printing, furniture and office-supply clearinghouse nestled along Route 1 in Ashland, has received top honors of late for its entrepreneurship and rise to success. The company has earned a spot three years in a row on the coveted Companies That Care Honor Roll, a national award recognizing businesses that have created a respectful work environment and standards for ethical behavior.
“In order to serve our customers, it is important that we take care of our internal customers as well, which is our employees, along with the community at large,” explains John Nicar, the company’s manager of human resources.
A certified women-owned small business with the Virginia Department of Minority Business Enterprise, The Supply Room Companies also hosts health and wellness expos for its employees and provides free health screenings on an annual basis. Committed to serving both the community and the needs of its workers, the business offers at-home assistance for employees with loved ones in the military, time off for volunteering and a hardship vacation pool that allows coworkers to donate unused vacation days to fellow employees. Joanna Westbrook, a sales executive at The Supply Room Companies, explains, “You get the sense of family and community straight from the leadership here ... and you see that trickle down through the company.” Other perks include bonuses doled out to staffers who offer suggestions that help the bottom line, employee-of-the-month bonuses, 401(k) plans, weight-loss programs, walk clubs, and health and dental coverage, along with supplemental insurance.
Type of Business: Used-Car Retailer
Year Established: 1993
Number of Richmond-Based Employees: 1,176
Average Starting Salary: $44,124 (hourly sales consultant)
When CarMax buyer Roni Watts had to take her mother to a doctor’s appointment in Newport News, she didn’t have to worry about getting the time off thanks to the company’s flexible Time Away plan. “When my mom called me, I went to my supervisor and asked if I could use Time Away,” Watts says. “It’s perfect.”
The program gives all salaried associates the opportunity to begin taking time off from the moment they start working. Time Away includes vacation and sick time as well as personal time for anything the employee needs to do. It allows for immediate unscheduled leave, often pending approval by a supervisor. Under Time Away, new fathers can take up to two weeks of paid paternity leave.
CarMax is focused on the well-being of its employees, with a Health and Wellness Program that provides associates with access to health fairs, on-site nurses who visit once a week and health information. “Associates can feel confident in their ability to talk with a health-care professional on a free, voluntary and confidential basis,” says Janet Bruington, the company’s benefits manager. The program also includes subsidized weight-loss and tobacco-cessation programs, with financial incentives for successful goal attainment. Another initiative, the Employee Assistance Program, aids workers who need help in dealing with emotional-wellness issues or life’s challenges.
Other perks at CarMax include health-insurance benefits for domestic partners, a mentor program, a day-care discount program, adoption assistance and adoption leave, a referral bonus program, and mother’s rooms for nursing. Finally, the free CarMax Rewards Program offers employees discounts on products such as clothing, accessories, appliances, computers, cell phones and more through an affiliated Web site.
Virginia Farm Bureau Federation
Type of Business: Insurance and Nonprofit
Year Established: 1926
Number of Richmond-Based Employees: 354
Average Starting Salary: $52,648 in Richmond, $45,783 in Virginia
The Richmond-based Virginia Farm Bureau Federation (VFBF) is the state’s largest farm organization, a powerful force that routinely lobbies on farmers’ behalf while seeing to it that the state’s agriculture industry prospers. Headquartered in the West Creek Office Park, the Federation is a not-for-profit organization that serves as the holding company, or parent company, for its other businesses, most notably the Virginia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. “Because we have insurance agents and other employees in our 95 county and branch offices who are visible and work in the community, many folks think we are only an insurance company. This isn’t true,” says VFBF president Wayne Pryor, a Goochland County farmer himself. “To reinforce the work of the federation, we have several thousand volunteer leaders who come right off the farm, working behind the scenes to keep agriculture and the Farm Bureau viable.”
To keep its employees jazzed about this collaborative effort, VFBF provides side benefits such as an on-site fitness facility, dubbed The Loft, as well as Pilates, body-shaping, and kickboxing classes during the lunch hour with YMCA instructors. In addition, employee-initiated programs are a companywide standard: The PRIDE Team is a group of workers who coordinate the recognition of fellow staffers going above and beyond the call of daily office duties, while The Employee Participation Team drives sports tournaments, picnics and community-outreach projects. VFBF seeks feedback from its work force at all levels, which has led to everything from free car seats for employees with children in their family to on-site dry-cleaning pickup and delivery.
The personal touches applied by the VFBF, which enjoys a 93 percent retention rate, have resulted in an active work force, one that’s also dedicated to volunteerism — as evidenced by employees’ participation in the Richmond Corporate Games, the Richmond Food Bank, Goochland Habitat for Humanity and fundraisers to help stockpile school supplies for students in Goochland.
HCA-Richmond Health System
Type of Business: Health Care
Year Established: 1968
Richmond-Based Employees: 6,483
Average Starting Salary: $30,368
Flexibility is the key to HCA-Richmond Health System’s high employee-retention rate among health-care providers.
Says registered nurse Diana Botsett, who has worked for HCA for 18 years and enjoys her three-day-a-week schedule: “I can work it around my daughter’s dance recitals and my husband’s business. I wouldn’t do it any other way. That’s why I won’t leave.”
As a result of self-scheduling and other examples of workplace flexibility, HCA’s four Richmond-area hospitals (CJW Medical Center, Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, John Randolph Medical Center and Retreat Hospital) have a turnover rate of 14 percent, three or four percentage points lower than the national rate at health-care facilities.
Although a hospital needs to be staffed around the clock, departments allow employees to work only weekends if they desire, or all-day shifts or night shifts. Twelve-hour shifts shorten the workweek to three days for some nurses, including Botsett.
Also, an extended-illness bank providing up to five months of paid time off is available for employees with a long-term ailment. (It can also be used by employees with a newborn or newly adopted child at home.)
“We realize our employees have a life outside of work,” notes Pat Farrell, HCA’s Richmond-division president.
Another focus at HCA is recruiting and keeping highly skilled sub-specialists, who are few and far between. The system’s variety of work environments — from the community-based Henrico Doctors’ to the acute-care Retreat — is a plus for many employees, as are multiple opportunities for development and mentoring. Full-time workers can receive up to $5,000 a year for tuition reimbursement, and HCA has a formal executive program for future chief operating officers, financial officers and chief nurse officers.
University of Richmond
Type of Business: University
Year Established: 1830
Richmond-Based Employees: 1,328
Average Starting Salary: Not provided
Pat Teachey burst out laughing during her job interview with the University of Richmond.
The interviewer, upon learning that Teachey was expecting a baby, mentioned that the child could attend the school for free if she remained a university employee when he was ready to enroll. To look so far into the future, said Teachey, now UR’s faculty human-resources coordinator, seemed a little nuts at the time.
But by 1998, Teachey was done laughing. Her then-18-year-old son, Burt, was ready to go to college that fall, a costly enterprise for most families — but not the Teacheys.
They still had to pay $5,000 a year for Burt’s room and board on the West End campus, but the then-$25,000 undergraduate tuition (now $37,610) was taken care of by UR — a four-year savings of $100,000.
Full-tuition waivers for the children of employees (as well as a tuition-exchange program with 586 member schools) were a factor in our judges’ choice of UR as a great place to work.
The university’s dedication to a diverse work force was another element. The Office of Common Ground, started two years ago, is the most visible symbol of UR’s initiative to make the university more inclusive.
Student discussions (“Dialogues in Black and White”) in 2002 and 2003 prompted a commission to study diversity at UR, followed by a report in 2005. The ideals of diversity and community are embedded throughout the university — in human resources, the chaplaincy, student organizations and libraries. “It’s not one office doing something to the campus,” says Glyn Hughes, director of the Office of Common Ground.
Next on the Common Ground Action Committee’s list is to focus on hiring more diverse faculty members; the percentage of minority faculty at UR is 11 percent, Hughes notes, although UR’s staff overall is 25 percent minority.
Other benefits at the university include a 403(b) retirement plan with a matching contribution of up to 10 percent of an employee’s salary, and a staff bonus plan in which employees are nominated by peers or superiors based on work beyond the call of duty.
Draper Aden Associates
Type of Business: Consultant Engineering
Year Established: 1972
Richmond-Based Employees: 117
Average Starting Salary: $32,000
Actively listening to employees and keeping finances transparent are among the strategies that draw solid staffers to engineering consultants Draper Aden Associates and make them want to stay, company leaders say.
Several major programs were started or changed as a result of feedback from a “Firm of Choice” committee created in recent years, according to Theresa Turner, vice president for human resources in the firm’s Blacksburg headquarters, and Jeff Lighthiser, executive vice president and director of marketing and strategic growth, who works in the Richmond branch.
Those include an increase in the company’s 401(k)-plan contribution, which is now a 100 percent match for those vested with five years of service, upgrades to vision and dental insurance, and an added paid holiday.
“It’s hard to know everything everybody else knows from previous organizations and what would work well in our organization,” says Turner. “We tap that resource by listening to employees, and it has been very good for us.”
One of the ways the company communicates back to employees and establishes trust is by opening its finances — salaries aside — to complete inspection.
On the day-to-day side, Draper Aden strives to create camaraderie through healthy competitive activities such as periodic chili cookoffs and poetry contests. Keeping the mood light while at the same time encouraging employees to aggressively seek business keeps the work force happy and motivated, according to Lighthiser.
“We’re a very entrepreneurial company, and anytime new opportunities come along and we like them, we take advantage of them,” he says.
Philip Morris USA
Type of Business: Consumer Products/Tobacco
Year Established: 1902
Richmond-Based Employees: 5,641
Average Starting Salary: $77,712
The head honchos at tobacco giant Philip Morris USA realize that working for a company in their line of business isn’t for everyone. But rather than viewing that as a hindrance, they set the bar even higher when recruiting, looking for employees with strong leadership skills and rewarding them for loyalty and productivity.
“We view this as a really tough business, which gives us a unique need for the best and the brightest,” says Randy Lawrence, vice president of organizational development, staffing and training. “We have every challenge that you have in a business, and then we’re in the business of tobacco.”
With an average tenure of nearly 17 years for salaried and hourly employees and a one-year retention rate of 97 percent in 2006, the company seems to be on the right track.
That takes a combination of hard benefits — such as 10 percent to 15 percent salary bonuses for employees with at least one year of service; a robust 401(k) package; strong health, dental and vision coverage; and paid support for continuing education — as well as softer, environmental perks such as in-house stores, on-site fitness centers, coffee bars and hair salons.
The amenities help make life easier and more enjoyable for busy workers, but the benefits employees say really matter are the ones that promote a long-term sense of security and growth.
“That’s not the sexy answer, but that’s what people really want,” Lawrence says. “We have great salaries, what we believe are benchmarked as some of the best benefits in the country, we give people great opportunities, and while they are here we try to treat people the best we can.”
Philip Morris’ employee-evaluation system was given high marks by about 93 percent of workers in a recent survey. The work force also bands together to give back to the community, contributing $2.8 million to 77 area nonprofits in 2006 through an employee-driven grant program.
Type of Business: Architectural Firm
Year Established: 1939
Number of Richmond-Based Employees: 52
Average Starting Salary: $40,000 (company-wide)
In October, HKS administrative assistant Merriann Clark headed to Las Vegas for a three-day vacation — courtesy of her employer. Every December, all of the architectural firm’s employees are flown to the company’s Dallas headquarters for its Holiday Gala, and at last year’s event, Clark won the Vegas trip as a door prize. Despite five years with HKS, this was the first gala for Clark, a nervous flier who drove to the event with her husband. “When I went up to get my prize, Ralph Hawkins, the CEO of the whole company, handed me the certificate and said, ‘You see why you need to come to these events?’ ” Clark recalls. “He remembered that I hadn’t been before out of 1,200 employees. That kind of blew my mind.”
HKS makes a point of having its workers get to know one another. New employees are assigned a “mentor” who shepherds them around the office on their first day, showing them the ropes and even taking them to lunch, while a quarterly program pairs employees who don’t normally work together for a one-on-one lunch. The result of such efforts, says Clark, is that “everyone’s just a big family here, and that starts from the top guy, Chuck Means, and trickles all the way down.”
BY: CHAD ANDERSON, KATE ANDREWS, GERGANA BOBEVA, BILL FARRAR, PAUL SPICER AND JOAN TUPPONCE