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Best Places to Work 2010
By Andy Cohen and Dave Vagnoni
Research by Quantum Workplace
September, 2010

Meet the 75 companies identified by an in-depth survey process as the best companies to work for in the ad specialty industry.

It’s an impressive feat to maintain a great workplace during difficult times. It takes enhanced efforts to motivate employees, a renewed emphasis on internal communication and an impressive commitment to building a corporate culture. That’s just the kind of dedication to workplace issues that fosters an environment where employees want to work, and that they remain loyal to. It’s the kind of company embodied by the 75 firms listed on this page.

Welcome to the 2010 Counselor Best Places to Work, where we name the top workplaces in the industry. It’s a mix of large and small companies, and a geographically diverse group, as you’ll see on the map on the following pages.

Overall, though, the 75 companies that make up the Best Places to Work share one quality: Their employees simply want to go there every day. These companies have loyal staffs, dependable and trustworthy management, solid and motivating benefits packages and overall team effectiveness that raise the organizations to high levels of success.

To identify these companies, Counselor again partnered with a third-party research firm, Quantum Workplace, which conducts Best Places to Work contests in more than 40 major cities, including Boston, Dallas, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

The list of 75 companies – an increase from 60 last year – is certainly varied. It has distributors and suppliers, Counselor Top 40 companies with hundreds of employees and small firms with only 12 staffers (to qualify for the program a company had to have at least 10 employees).

Check out who they are, where they’re located and how they create winning corporate cultures.

Complete ListPDF: Complete List

1. Dacasso
Gainesville, FL
Fun In The Florida Sun

Only the murderer saw it coming. Struck with a sudden and supposedly horrible pain, John Farrell fell to the ground as some sort of blood-like substance seeped from his mouth. In a moment, he managed one final twitch before his body "succumbed" to the poison found in what others in the room thought was a tainted shrimp cocktail.

"It was one of the best acting performances you’ll ever see," jokes Farrell.

That performance, while quite the memorable spectacle, was just a small part of the latest far-from-boring holiday party at Dacasso (asi/48125). "It’s getting difficult for us to outdo ourselves each year," says Marci Marais, Dacasso’s director of accounting and human resources. "Last year we rented out a performing arts room and had staging, a hosting staff involved, and music and catering. It was incredible."

For the distinctive December 2009 event, which included employees and their families, Dacasso hired local student actors who helped bring another dimension to the murder mystery dinner theme. "They decorated and we got scripts the day before," remembers Farrell, Dacasso’s president. "It wasn’t just one person. Everyone got involved."

Each of Dacasso’s employees was invited to take part in the game, which included props like fake blood capsules as well as specially-themed outfits. At the end of the party, employees were given a chance to collect prizes in categories like "best dressed." Everyone also got to guess who in the group was the make believe murderer. "Nobody got it right," Farrell says. "It was Marci."

While nobody could name the evening’s villain, everybody would rave about the evening’s unconventional and unforgettable entertainment. "Holiday parties are a big deal to us," Farrell says. "We brainstorm ideas. Another year we went to the Gainesville Raceway and had a quarter-mile drag race. We did group dinners for a while, but we just found they weren’t as fun."

And whatever it is, if it’s not fun and if it’s not progressive, it doesn’t last long at Dacasso. Whether it’s through a holiday party, a wellness program or a late afternoon sales challenge, the Gainesville, FL-based supplier has become a standout in satisfaction and success. "There’s a real dedication to putting employees first here," Marais says. "When you put people first, success follows."

And, in this case, so do the accolades. The results are in and there’s no mystery here – Dacasso is Counselor’s Best Place to Work for 2010.

A Happy Place

 When he’s not wowing his employees with his acting skills, Farrell entertains in other ways. "I like to think I have quite a sense of humor," he says. It makes for some interesting April Fools’ Days at Dacasso. "I like to play practical jokes," Dacasso’s president says. "Once, I bought a lottery ticket for one of our guys. He scratched it off and it was a $5,000 winner." Of course, it wasn’t what it seemed. "It was a fake lottery ticket," Farrell says, letting out a laugh.

While Farrell is generous with his jokes, he’s also generous in his real rewards as well. "Sometimes, off the cuff, he’ll just buy lunch for everybody," says Melinda Farrell, John’s wife and Dacasso’s vice president. Melinda says John provides other random perks as well. For example, right before the 4th of July, John happily opened his wallet and gave every employee $25. The money was a company-wide prize after Dacasso’s staff won a spur-of-the-moment sales challenge, netting a large, late-day order. "He’s been doing that kind of stuff forever," Melinda says.

And outsiders seem to be jealous. Recently, a repairman came to Dacasso’s offices to fix John’s new laptop. It was 8:25 in the morning. "The person said, ‘Wow what a great place to work,’ " Farrell proudly recalls. "It came across to a stranger how everybody was happy to be here, even early in the morning."

One of the happiest people in the Dacasso bunch is Marais, who moved three years ago from a government accounting job in Kansas to the sand and sun of Florida. "There’s more of a consistency here and it’s very encouraging," she says. "They make a personal investment in each one of us. I’m excited and happy to go to work."

Of course, liking where she lives helps her happiness, too. Geographically and socially, Gainesville is at the heart of the Sunshine State. "You’re an hour and a half from either beach," Marais says. "People are very active and there are parks and bike lanes and lakes right in town. And it’s the home of the Gators."

No, those wouldn’t be the typically 800-pound roaming reptiles that are native to the wetlands of Florida. Instead, those would be the University of Florida Gators, whose football team is perennially one of the best in the nation. The Gators, by the way, play their home games in "The Swamp," a fitting nickname for the 88,000-seat Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. "I don’t think I missed a game all last year," Marais says. "It’s something for people to get behind. The energy is amazing and there’s a sense of unity."

At work or at play, Dacasso is a spirited part of that unity. Whether they’re supporting UF’s sports teams, a sponsorship program, a benefit auction or a local charity, Dacasso’s staff takes great pride in the Gainesville community. "You get a warm and cuddly feeling," John says.

For many years, Dacasso has been involved in a variety of Gainesville-area programs and organizations, from the American Cancer Society, to Haven Hospice, to Tools for Schools. "Teachers can come in and get bags, binders and pencils," John says. "When we have misprints, we donate the products so they can still be used."

Benefits Galore

Frances Martin was the first in her family to graduate from college. "She was my right arm person," Melinda Farrell says. "She went through two years of night school." But as hard as Martin worked, she didn’t do it all alone. "It was always my intention to go back to school and I wanted to pursue a degree," she says. "I sat John and Melinda down. I didn’t want them to flip out. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere. They were super supportive."

But the support was only just getting started. "They came back to me in a day or so and said, ‘We want to help you out a little bit,’ " Martin remembers. "They said, ‘We’re going to reimburse you for half of your tuition.’ " Considering the rising costs of college, plus the fact that she was then only recently married, Martin greatly appreciated the help. "John and Melinda are two of my favorite people in the world," she says.

Eventually, armed with a business degree, Martin did leave Dacasso to join another Gainesville promotional company called ProGifts. But that hasn’t changed the Dacasso philosophy of helping employees pay for school. "They realize that we work to live, not live to work," Martin says. "They know that people have so many other things involved in their lives."

Besides tuition assistance, Dacasso also offers employees a chance to build their lives in other ways. The company provides a tax-advantaged profit-sharing plan that allows employees to become fully vested just three months after they’re hired. "We provide the maximum match of 3%," John Farrell says. "We’re very proud of that."

Brad Barroso-Gonzalez, for one, is very glad for that match. Dacasso’s operations manager and one of the supplier’s longest-tenured employees, Barroso-Gonzalez used his Simple IRA to help buy his first house. Since, on the same property, he’s done even more work. "We replaced the old house with a new house," he says. "We rebuilt on the same ground."

In that new home, Barroso-Gonzalez lives with his wife, Daylin, and two children – something else he owes to Dacasso, as the two met at the company. "On the first day she was here, I was walking her around and I introduced her to Brad," John says. "I reminded them that we had a no interoffice dating policy." Well, so much for that. "I think they’re up to their fourth anniversary," John says.

Setting Priorities

Not long after Barroso-Gonzalez began with Dacasso, roughly seven years ago, he asked John and Melinda for a big holiday favor. "It was around Thanksgiving and we had that Thursday and Friday off," Barroso-Gonzalez says. "I had recently moved and I had a friend from back home who was down a bit."

Having lived previously in Lancaster County, PA, home for Brad wasn’t exactly close to Gainesville. "I asked if I could go up and visit my friends the next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday," Brad says. "They let me go with no notice."

What was a big favor in Barroso-Gonzalez’s mind really was no big deal to the Farrells. At Dacasso, employees are expected to work hard, but they’re also expected to prioritize time for themselves and their loved ones. "We offer flex days and in the summer, when it’s slower, a four day workweek," says John Farrell, who’s been president of Dacasso since it was founded in 2003. "A lot of people take advantage of that."

Employees also take advantage of Dacasso’s favorable scheduling policies that allow workers to rollover vacation time and enjoy extra days off. At Dacasso, vacation days and sick days are combined into one paid time off pool, benefiting those who lead healthy lives. "We don’t want to penalize employees who don’t get sick," Marais says.

Helping each of Dacasso’s 14 employees stay healthy is also a priority for the Farrells. In a second floor loft at Dacasso’s offices is a specially-designed fitness room, which includes a very conventional weight bench and a very unconventional treadmill. "It was custom created with a keyboard and a monitor," says Donny West, a Dacasso sales representative. "If you have cabin fever and you’ve been sitting for six, seven hours straight, you can walk it off. You can walk and get your e-mails."
Willing To Listen

John Farrell’s office is filled with reminders. In one spot, there’s a display of colored pictures and sketches, reminders of his two daughters. In another, artifacts from India, reminders of Dacasso’s factory there. And in still another, a rather nondescript, completely cleared off, 48-inch round conference table. It reminds Farrell to keep an open mind, especially when his employees come in with ideas. "When I was sitting at my desk, with stacks of paperwork, I was too distracted," he says.

Whether he’s in his office or on the warehouse floor, John wants to hear what his employees have to say. "When we have potluck dinners, we have brainstorming," he says. "It’s an even playing field for everybody."

John’s open door policy has certainly had a positive effect on Dacasso and its staff. Several years ago, when the supplier was having issues with shipping errors, employees were encouraged to pick apart practices that weren’t working. "We all agreed to changes in the approval process," says Barroso-Gonzalez, Dacasso’s operations chief. "Everybody was happy and comfortable. Now we have maybe only four or five shipping errors a year."

Since, with improved efficiency, Dacasso has thrived in the ad specialty industry, posting a 548% growth rate from 2006 to 2008. Specializing in leather and desk accessories, the supplier’s 2009 sales increased to $1.6 million, and this year Farrell is forecasting a 10%-12% jump in revenues. "We’ve made our sales goal every month this year," he says. "We’re on track for a great year."

Farrell knows the busiest months are still ahead, as Dacasso really hits its sales stride during the holiday season. In fact, it gets so busy at times that everyone in the company – no matter what their job or title – spends considerable time on the warehouse floor. And on the hottest Florida days, knowing they have to keep their employees going, the Farrells are happy to hydrate their staff with one final, fitting perk. The drink of choice? Gatorade, of course. Like there was ever a doubt.

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