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Best Place to Work 2009 - Sunrise Identity, Woodinville, WA
By Dave Vagnoni
September, 2009


On the hottest day in the history of Seattle suburb Woodinville, WA, Josh Vargas and T.J. Vail got together to renew their video-game rivalry. While temperatures soared to 102 degrees outside, Vargas and Vail enjoyed the comfort of their shared air-conditioned lounge, super-accessorized with a bean bag chair, cushy couches, a flat-screen television and even hanging neon lights. Raiding a cabinet stocked with Xbox game titles, they first played a little Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Then, it was time for NCAA Football 2009.

“We play this game a lot,” Vargas admits.

On this day, randomly, it was Ohio State versus Arkansas. While there wasn’t much offense at the start, by halftime the Buckeyes had opened a commanding lead. With a two-year-old cockapoo named Elliot jumping from cushion to cushion as the game wore on, the Razorbacks still hadn’t scored. Thankfully for Arkansas, this lunch break was just about over.

“We definitely like to keep things fun around here,” says Nelson Jay, who was watching the virtual trouncing from a few steps away. “It can get pretty crowded in here at times.”

Jay, the vice president of marketing at Sunrise Identity (asi/339206), smiled as his company’s Xbox lounge emptied. Along with the rest of Sunrise’s leadership team, Jay thoroughly enjoys showing off the growing company’s unique workplace advantages. “The Xbox folks have been happy with what we’ve done for them, so they gave us all this stuff,” Jay says, this time motioning in the general direction of some Guitar Hero gear. “It’s really pretty sweet.”

Sweet, yes. Fun, of course. But this one room alone doesn’t make Sunrise Identity Counselor’s Best Place to Work in 2009. The first person you see when you walk into Sunrise Identity’s brightly-colored lobby is usually longtime bubbly employee Carly Vergara. From the front desk, which is topped with a bursting jar of candy, Vergara greets visitors with a smile and a pleasant nod. Of course, it’s quite possible before you see Vergara you’ll hear the dueling welcoming shrieks from her young beagles, Floppy and Lumpy. “Now be good,” Vergara says happily, twisting her chair in the direction of her energetic dogs.

Vergara is far from the only Sunrise employee to take her dogs to work. At Sunrise, there is not a dog-friendly policy. It’s more of a dog-loving policy. “Years ago, one of our employees started bringing a stray into work everyday,” says Jay. “People got attached. Now we have a whole section on dogs in our company handbook.”

To an outsider, there don’t appear to be many dog-related rules at Sunrise. There are obvious canine-related perks, though, including a quasi-doggie daycare in the company’s fulfillment center. Also, more than a handful of desks have a stash of dog-approved treats readily available. That’s especially important because several dogs roam freely throughout the company’s two main floors. “There really haven’t been too many accidents with the dogs,” says Michele Oldroyd, human resources director. “Our dogs are mostly well-behaved.”

While dogs like Elliot, Floppy and Lumpy are well-trained, they might not be quite as obedient as Chuck. Not to be forgotten, he’s the office goldfish, who unfailingly swims to whichever side of the bowl visitors are peering through. “He doesn’t like to be photographed, though,” says a laughing Rebecca Roberts, an analyst who sits at a desk only a few feet away from Chuck. “He always seems to turn the other way.”

Just For Fun

It’s that kind of culture which has led Sunrise Identity to not only become the top company in Counselor’s Best Places to Work program, but to also find longterm success. Sunrise has built its business since 1976 into a $30 million (2008 revenues) operation with 65 employees today.

And those employees certainly appreciate the culture. Outside Oldroyd’s second floor office, there’s a rather inconspicuous-looking snack display, set up to encourage healthy eating. To the left of a mini fridge, there’s a pile of granola bars, some grapes and a few bananas. But inside the fridge is the headliner. Sitting below shelves of apples and string cheese is a row of green-bottled beer.

“I like Heineken, so we have Heineken Fridays,” says Mitch Mounger, president and CEO. “It just sort of takes the edge off at the end of the week. I believe that you work hard and play hard.”

Mounger, whose family owns Sunrise, wouldn’t have you believe his office turns into a raucous party zone filled with conga lines on Friday afternoons. But he would have you know he likes to have fun. “I can honestly say that I enjoy hanging out with everyone in this office,” Mounger says.

It’s simply part of the Sunrise Identity culture to often have company BBQs and themed events. When the Seahawks reached the Super Bowl in 2006, Sunrise turned part of its fulfillment and distribution center into a field, rolling out actual turf so employees could run some pass routes and toss around the pigskin. When local resident Blake Lewis was one of the final two contestants on American Idol, Sunrise held an elaborate voting party that included a picture shrine. Then, there are the occasional Sunrise chili cook-offs, usually won by fulfillment queen Becca Collins. “I have a bit of a different recipe,” she says, with a shy look. “I use brown sugar and lima beans.”

Still, it doesn’t take a late-day party or a cooking contest to relax the dress code at Sunrise. Unless clients are coming in for a meeting, flip-flops and shorts are welcomed in the office, even on a management level.

Live Well

Around mid-afternoon, one of the longest-tenured employees at Sunrise Identity, Matt Stryer pulls up a chair to a round conference room table. To his left are two other senior account executives, Rich Knapp and Jana Thomas. “The bosses don’t look over your shoulder and you get to have a life here,” Stryer says, moments after returning from a semi-secret presentation before a nearby world famous software company. “A while back, I got really sick and I was out of the office for six to eight months total,” he says. “I was definitely grateful then for the company’s health care plan.”

That plan is part of Sunrise’s ongoing wellness program, which includes regular fitness and training initiatives. Knapp is a member of the Sunrise Wellness Committee. “We have bike-to-work groups, we’re trying to organize hiking trips and we have support teams,” he says. “They’re good, fun ways to be accountable.”

In 2008, Sunrise partnered with a local gym and put together a 90-day, get-in-shape challenge for employees. “It was patterned after the show The Biggest Loser,” says Oldroyd. “It was more than just about losing weight. We brought in a kick boxing instructor, a chiropractor and a nutritionist. It was a lot about cooking healthy meals. At the end of the program, we gave out awards and embroidered bags.”

This year, many company employees are taking part in the Sunrise Great American Roadtrip. Jay, who frequently bikes to work, helped create a virtual trek across the country. “It’s another way to get people involved,” he says, referring to a wall-mounted map. “We made a path that winds its way across, with stops in cities where clients or co-workers are.” When workers exercise, through walking, running, swimming or cycling, miles are tallied, bringing the trek closer to completion. Employees, some of whom wear pedometers, can also check their personal contribution through a program designed by IT Specialist Bobbi Cacatian. “There’s an internal company blog that tracks the trip, too,” Jay says.

Thomas, who’s joined in the virtual trek, agrees wellness initiatives make Sunrise a unique place to work. “When you talk to people, they almost fall out of their chair when you tell them how long you’ve been at one company,” she says. “It’s unheard of anymore. But there’s not much turnover here at all.”

It’s a sentiment that the owners and managers of Sunrise are looking for. On this Wednesday, Mark Lynch, Sunrise’s COO, knows he has to finish a work appointment in time to make a non-work appointment. “I’m taking my daughter Cassie to the orthodontist,” he says. “The flexibility here makes a difference,” he says.

Lynch, a tall businessman with a personality as vast as his native Montana, remembers a call from Larry Mounger, now Sunrise’s chairman of the board, from years earlier. “Cassie had gotten into a car crash with our family nanny,” Lynch says. “Larry calls and wants to know what he can do. He knew I was headed to where the accident was, so he asked who was watching my other daughter Carly.” Certainly, that call had a lasting impression on Lynch – he’s happily stayed at Sunrise for a dozen years.

Later in the day, Mitch Mounger, Larry’s son, also stresses Sunrise’s family focus. “I make it a priority not to miss my kids’ games,” he says. “If I have to come back in and work later hours, I will.”

Tom Economou, the senior vice president of sales at Sunrise, appreciates the opportunities his boss’ attitude affords. “I got to go play kickball with my five-year-old son the other day,” he says. “That was fun.”

Kickball usually is fun. Painting usually isn’t. Yet, it was Economou who suggested Sunrise brighten up its walls a bit last year. When bids from professionals came in too high, Sunrise employees turned the job into a painting party. “A lot of us pitched in,” says Amy Geiger, sales support manager. “We ordered pizza and turned up some music.”

Unconventional Approach

Throughout Sunrise Identity, visitors might notice curious-looking collage boards on desks of employees. They’re meant to remind workers of their personal goals. Austine Powell’s is one of the more interesting ones. “It’s about travel, friends and fitness,” she says. Powell, Sunrise’s import coordinator, is a body-building champion, whose regimen requires a special workout schedule and diet. “I want people to have a vision of what’s important to them,” says Mounger.

If Sunrise Identity had a company vision board, it would include a section on charity work. Led by its Philanthropy Committee, Sunrise has contributed to local shelters, helped with Habitat for Humanity projects and organized a unique charity tie-in following Hurricane Katrina. Working with Bungie Studios, the company that developed the video game Halo, Sunrise produced thousands of limited edition “Fight the Flood” T-shirts, with proceeds going to the American Red Cross. In the Halo series, the Flood are enemy aliens that are obstacles for the game’s main protagonist, the Master Chief. Selling the T-shirts for $19.99 on Bungie’s Web site, Sunrise presented the Red Cross with a check for $175,000.

“It’s something that we’re proud of,” says Mounger, known to be a strong proponent of outside-the-box thinking.

Admittedly, Mounger’s business philosophy is unconventional. That’s why his employees like him. But on this particularly hot week in July, Mounger became a rule breaker in a way his staff didn’t exactly approve of. According to Sunrise policy, whenever the temperature reaches 90 degrees, the office closes, no matter what the time of day. Well, so much for that idea. “That just can’t happen this week,” Mounger says with a wide smile, fully aware the mercury had long-since raced into triple digits. “We wouldn’t get any work done at all.” – DV

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