Counselor

2014 Best Places to Work Road Tour

Our editors hit the road (literally) on Counselor’s fourth annual Road Tour to learn the secrets of a dozen stellar companies. The discovery: Great workplaces come in many crazy, wonderful forms.

What does an engaged workforce look like? That was the question Counselor set out to answer as three editors traversed the country (logging roughly 5,400 miles by car and plane in just under a week’s time), visiting a dozen companies on this year’s Counselor Best Places to Work list and capturing everything we saw in blogs, videos, photos, Tweets and Facebook posts.

Over the course of the multi-day trek, we quickly discovered that a motivated workplace can come in unexpected forms: We witnessed it as we noshed on coconut cake in a spirited bake-off in Georgia, and we saw it while sweating on a regulation-size soccer field in a cutthroat soccer match in Utah.

While all of the companies we visited had vastly different cultures, it’s what they have in common that really stands out:

Their attention to office design, particularly open, airy spaces with inviting meeting areas that foster collaboration. The deliberate approach they take to hiring the best people, instead of rushing to fill a position. Their adherence to a core set of guiding principles. Through mile after mile across the country, these were consistent themes from company to company.

The lesson at the end of an exhilarating week: Great places to work aren’t built by accident. They are the product of conscious and thoughtful planning.

Turn the page to come along for the ride – and find out what makes the employees at the industry’s best workplaces tick.

Breakfast with a Wookie in

South Carolina

Sometimes you walk into a company and you just know the people there genuinely enjoy each other’s company. That was the case when the Road Tour crew rolled into Credential Express (asi/47204) in Greenwood, SC, to officially kick off the 2014 Counselor Best Places to Work Road Tour.

As employees gathered over a large breakfast table and noshed on Chik-fil-A breakfast sandwiches washed down with sweet tea, the chatter focused on whose football team will be better next fall (Clemson versus the University of South Carolina) and who’s a better driver.

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“We pretty much know everything about each other,” said Nicole, who’s worked in both the marketing and accounting departments at Credential Express. In a town like Greenwood, which has only 20,000 residents, she said, employees are constantly bumping into each other outside of work, and some even went to high school together. They often get together on the weekend too, taking exercise classes with one another or going to the CEO’s farm for a day of horseback riding and fishing.

“It’s a good thing we like each other, or work would be much more of a struggle,” she said. “Instead, it’s a nice place to come every day.”

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The firm, which supplies lanyards and other identification products to the industry, has 30 employees and hires for personality as much as it does for set skills, according to Chief Operating Officer Karl Ziegler, who was brought in in 1997 to launch the firm’s promotional arm. (The company started in 1981 as a technology supplier to the security industry; now, as a supplier of promotional products, it’s been growing about 30% a year for the past few years.)

“We believe in interviewing for niceness as much as qualifications,” says Ziegler. “We can train people to do certain jobs.”

As a result, employees join the company and rarely leave. For example, one customer service rep started working at Credential nearly 20 years ago after the firm she was working at burned down. Two other employees have had spouses join the firm. And few employees are in the original roles they were hired for. One woman originally started as an intern and now works for the sales department; another went from IT into customer service.

No matter what their roles, Credential Express believes in rewarding employees in visible ways. One popular method is passing on the company “Wookie,” a stuffed version of the popular Star Wars character that is given to a deserving employee when he or she does a good deed. On this morning, the Wookie is awarded to Ken, an IT manager who left his vacation in Myrtle Beach early when the company’s system went down. Ken worked through the night to get the company back online.

“That’s just the kind of thing that employees here do,” said marketing manager Travis Brewington, whose father is the owner of the company. “We look out for one another.”

Anniversary Celebration in

Georgia

One thing was perfectly clear as the Road Tour crew pulled into Pinnacle Promotions (asi/295986) in Norcross, GA: The company was ready for a party. In fact, the Counselor Best Places to Work Road Tour just happened to show up at Pinnacle on the day it was celebrating its 20th anniversary. And yes, all of the company’s 85 employees were prepared to sing Happy Birthday.

“We like to celebrate anything we can – big or small,” said Mitch Weintraub, who founded the company 20 years ago after graduating from business school and was shortly joined in the business by his brother Dave. “We have a very friendly corporate culture, where employees enjoy spending time with each other – both when they’re working and also outside of the office.”

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But the office itself is a sight to behold. It’s quite a space, which was extremely well-thought-out (including the hiring of a professional designer to create it) by both Mitch and Dave. The company moved into this 22,000-square-foot facility in February, but it was years in the making. Pinnacle even surveyed employees to find out what they liked and disliked about their previous space, and what they wanted to see from a new office.

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“We heard that people just wanted some space to get together, where they could be comfortable and almost feel like they were at home,” said Dave Weintraub. “It was important that the office really fostered a community.”

So, now the Pinnacle workplace includes a cafeteria that looks more like an old-time diner with leather-backed booths to sit in, as well as seven conference rooms that are all named after inspirational and creative people such as Jimi Hendrix, Leonardo DaVinci and Elvis Presley. Community is so important to Pinnacle that there are committees among employees for just about everything: athletics and fitness, community service and a Smile Squad that conceives fun events for the company.

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“We’re in a creative business, so we want to make sure we’re giving people the space to be as creative as possible,” said Mitch. “It’s an open office that people can really collaborate with each other.”

And the people of Pinnacle obviously enjoy spending time with each other, especially on this special day, which consists of a fun photo booth, food trucks backed up into the company parking lot serving barbecue and tacos, as well as an ice pop stand that the locals are raving about.

“The company is special because of the people,” said Justin Hutchinson, Pinnacle’s director of inside sales who has worked here for about a year. “We’re a passionate group and the company just has a great vibe. Both Mitch and Dave have done a lot to make it a comfortable place to work. It’s not uncommon for a party to break out, and it’s just a super-cool place to work.”

Time Off + Treats =

Workplace Success

Time off and food: Those are the true keys to attracting and retaining great employees, believes Craig Callaway, CEO of eCompanyStore (asi/185782), a 130-person firm based in Alpharetta, GA, that runs company stores for giants like Microsoft and Bayer.

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“There’s only so much money you can pay people,” says Callaway. “What you can really give them that makes the difference is free time to spend with their families.”

Callaway doesn’t just pay lip service to the idea of work/life balance. eCompanyStore practices what it preaches by awarding all employees, with the exception of highly commissioned salespeople who are eligible for incentive trips, with 21-day mandatory sabbaticals every five years. That’s in addition to any regular vacation time they’re entitled to.

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“I want people to take the kind of trip they’d never take in a regular week’s vacation, whether it’s going on a mission trip or tracking down a long-lost second cousin. We want people to do life-changing stuff and come back revitalized,” Callaway says.

And when they’re in the office, employees are able to opt to attend quarterly outings arranged by their peers. If someone comes up with the idea to, say, plan a paintball outing, the company will fund the outing and allow people a half day off, as long as at least eight employees sign up to go along. Employees also are encouraged to participate in charitable endeavors during the workday.

“That’s really our differentiator here,” Callaway says. “A lot of companies say they’re family-friendly, but we actually are. So people stay here 15, 20 years, and work hard.”

That kind of loyalty and commitment has paid off for the firm – clients like Microsoft have done business with eCompanyStore for more than 15 years because of its stellar customer service.

One other thing they also do a lot of at eCompany- Store: eat. The distributorship regularly has events that revolve around food. On this particular afternoon, the Road Tour crew had the opportunity to judge a cut-throat bake-off, where 18 employees baked items ranging from cherry cheesecake to zucchini bread and competed for cash prizes and a giant trophy.

After tasting each item, the Road Tour team bestowed the top prize on Kelly Sundgren, who wowed the crew with a tall vanilla cake and coconut frosting.

“We’ll eat together for virtually any occasion,” said Callaway, while sampling a chocolate and peanut butter brownie. “We can always find a good reason to celebrate.”

Training Day in

Atlanta

it’s not terribly common for a 65-person company to dedicate a specific space within its 12,000-square-foot production and decoration facility to training. The Icebox (asi/229395), though, isn’t your typical company. It introduced Icebox University earlier this year, in an effort to ensure all of its employees had the proper knowledge they needed to do their jobs successfully, but also that they shared that experience and knowledge with each other.

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So, the company has a classroom that can easily hold 25 people at a time on the second floor of its production center, complete with curriculum books, blackboards and desks. There are weekly training classes that are mostly for salespeople, but The Icebox also hosts all-company training sessions as well as impromptu department meetings in the training center.

“Every person in our company is critical to our success, and we created this training program so that people have the tools they need to do their jobs well,” says Scott Alterman, who founded The Icebox along with his partner Jordy Gamson in 2001, as he leads the Road Tour crew around his company on a Tuesday morning. “We really need knowledge-share across the whole company if we’re going to continue to grow this business.”

The Icebox is far more than an employee training center; rather, it’s a breeding ground for promotional ideas. The office, which is set in the up-and-coming Inman Park area of Atlanta, is designed as kind of a wide- open warehouse where staffers can easily interact with each other and brainstorm client concepts and ideas.

“We’re set up like this by design,” Alterman says. “We want a lot of collaboration among our people.”

And there’s certainly no shortage of that here. On this morning, there’s one employee who just returned from her honeymoon telling stories in the middle of the office, and others mingling with cups of coffee before they get busy for the day. Plus, the company’s employees often participate in Fitness Fridays in which they walk as a group together outside or rent bikes from a nearby shop and ride around the neighborhood.

“I describe our culture as casual with accountability,” says Donnie Brown, COO of the company, which features casual attire every day, including this one where jeans and T-shirts are the clothes of choice, and one designer even wears workout gear while sitting on a stress ball at her desk. “We all get along really well, work hard and take joy in doing good, creative work.”

That work is showcased all throughout the office, as well. There’s a large, winding showroom that’s an impressive showpiece to visitors and clients, as well as a wall of T-shirt self-promos that the company has done over the years, a section of the office dedicated to the work the company has created for two major nonprofit clients, and a room that showcases the hundreds of different possibilities that The Icebox can create with caps and hats.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done here, and what we can do for clients, so we show it off in the office,” Alterman says about the workplace. “We’re always doing something cool here for clients, so it’s a fun place to be.”

Concepts & Associates Offers

Recipe for Happiness

The recipe for a Best Place to Work can sometimes be simple. Start with a tight-knit workforce that does whatever it can to help one another. Combine it with thoughtful leadership that cultivates a family environment and never reaches for the less-than-perfect candidate. You can find all those ingredients for workplace satisfaction at Concepts & Associates (asi/166235), which ranks as the number-one company on the Counselor Best Places to Work list this year.

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Sonya Holcomb, an accounting manager who has been with the company four years, has seen the proof in her co-workers. “They are walking in the door happy,” she says during a celebratory luncheon at the distributor’s Birmingham, AL-based office, “and when they leave, they are just as happy.”

Tim and Lynne Hennessy have found success with national clientele by never once missing an order deadline in their 31 years of business. On the other hand, building a cohesive team has no deadline. Lynne readily admits she will take six months to find the right candidate rather than simply filling a need. A strong applicant will go through several rounds of interviews with the majority of the company to make sure she is the right fit. (And it is usually a she – the 14 employees who work in Birmingham are mostly women.)

“When I hire someone,” says Lynne, who oversees operations, “I feel like I am adopting a child.”

Family atmosphere is more than just a buzzword. The Hennessys have brought two of their four sons into the business – oldest brother Tim Jr. and Michael, the youngest. The owners are incredibly sensitive to the work/life balance of their employees.

“Their needs are our needs,” says Tim Sr., the president who oversees sales. “That’s what’s it’s all about, helping people when they have a need.”

It’s something the rest of the company takes to heart. Employees won’t leave until they’ve checked with others to see if they can help with anything. The company will pitch in with packing and shipping during crunch periods and tight deadlines. “If someone yells ‘help!’ everyone comes running,” says Kathy Herndon, who has been with the company seven years as a senior client relations manager.

The investment in employees ranges from twice-monthly meetings where no question is off-limits to constant surprise celebrations for birthdays, anniversaries or just because. Tim and Lynne admit that Concepts thrives because of good people – earnest, hard-working, ego-less personalities who rally around each other. “Every company says they are a team,” says Lynne. “We really are a team.”

Rock-Paper-Scissors Tourney

in Denver

It’s not even 9 a.m. and employees at Specialty Incentives (asi/331870) in Denver are already chatting at their morning powwow, a hallway meeting COO Danlyn Iantorno instituted about six months ago as part of a plan to better communicate with employees.

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On this day’s agenda at the five-minute meeting are a few business issues (a new employee in accounting is introduced and a billing snafu is rectified) and a few that that are less business-focused but equally important. “Tomorrow is the USA World Cup game, so everyone get their red, white and blue on,” Iantorno says. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure out how to get a TV in here somehow.” It is also announced that one employee will be leaving early that day to attend the KISS/Def Leppard concert, which brought some snickers from the crowd.

Iantorno and the company’s two partners, along with president Drew Davis, have been looking for ways to keep the communication lines open with employees – and make them part of the decision-making process – as the company continues to grow, mainly through smart acquisitions. Two years ago, the company purchased LW Barrett, which added a number of salespeople, including some who are in their 80s, to the company. Another acquisition brought in several other new salespeople.

“We have a very diverse group here,” said Iantorno, noting that Specialty’s employees range in age from 25 to 89. “We’re trying to grow smartly, and we want employees involved in helping the process go smoothly.”

It’s a process that the company’s employees support. One seasoned saleswoman who joined the company a few years ago immediately came in and took over the catalog room. “It was a mess, and I asked if I could organize it to my liking. They gave me free reign,” she said.

Another staffer suggested that the company expand its small, drab lunchroom and to make it more attractive. “We realized they didn’t want to spend any time in there, and instead were eating their lunches in their car, watching the traffic go by,” said Chris Beyer, a partner at Specialty. “That was no good.” So the company blew out a wall of the area, added bigger windows, spiffed it up and called it “The Bistro.” “Now it’s a place people want to actually eat in,” Beyer says.

Another way Specialty engages employees is via rock-paper-scissors competitions. Employees aren’t shy about rooting for their favorite participant during this morning’s championship match. (Sadly, Road Crew member Andy Cohen is knocked out in the first round.)

While Iantorno introduced the game, she’s already deciding how she’s going to switch it up with a different competition soon. “I like to keep things fun,” she said. “Our apple cart is really happy here, and we don’t want to upset it.”

Reaping the Benefits in

Colorado

One of the main benefits of working at Quality- LapelPins.com (asi/80196) is … well, the benefits. An additional 10%-14% of an employee’s salary is put into a tax-deferred savings program; Owner Gary Konwinski says it’s so lucrative it forced their mutual fund provider to rewrite its algorithm. The Littleton, CO-based supplier also completely covers medical insurance for its employees. “We feel it attracts a better caliber of person,” says Konwinski.

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And there’s certainly much that’s attractive about this supplier, which produces pins, patches, lanyards and much more – even parts and badges for classic cars. Casual is the prevailing atmosphere and dress code. The company has a no-meetings policy, based on the wasted time and money Konwinski saw in his pre-retirement job as a geologist. “It’s nice – if you have a problem, you don’t have to make an appointment with HR,” says Kate Kreger, a sales rep who also handles accounts payable. “You can just go talk to your boss.”

QualityLapelPins was started by Gary’s sons Luke (the company’s president) and Josh (vice president) in the family’s basement. The elder Konwinski used his knowledge of running a business to help get the venture off the ground. The company has stayed a family affair; mom Nancy also works in administration and support. The closeness translates over to the staff, many young transplants from the Midwest who spend time together outside of work.

“I really like the family atmosphere of a small company,” says Graphic Designer Jen Marshall, who has been with the supplier for seven years. “It’s really personal and everyone is very friendly.”

QualityLapelPins.com looks for eager young students just out of college “to give them a chance,” says Gary. The supplier often finds workers through Craigslist because that’s where graduating students will often look for jobs. But competition for talented graphic designers is stiffening as an influx of people move to Colorado to take advantage of the state’s legalization of marijuana. A few rejected candidates even mentioned it during interviews at QualityLapelPins.com.

“That’s not a reason we want you to work for our company,” says Gary. Fortunately for the Konwinskis, there are plenty other reasons. The Denver area remains inviting because of its abundance of open space and outdoor recreation along with its laid-back atmosphere. “I like the community and the environment around here,” says Sarah DeGooyer, who has been with the company for a year and is originally from Fargo, ND.

And, of course, the indoor dynamic at QualityLapelPins.com is pretty swell too. Says Gary: “We take pride in taking good care of our employees.”

Fiesta Celebration in

Salt Lake City

Following a long and treacherous drive through the mountains between Denver and Salt Lake City (travel tip: don’t, we repeat, don’t ever do this drive at night; it’s darker than a cave for two straight hours and the one-lane-road-with-oncoming-traffic-right-next-to-you is far from forgiving), the Best Places to Work Road Tour crew pulled into HandStands (asi/59525) on Thursday morning happy to just have its feet on the ground. But what awaited it was a party.

HandStands, a 120-person company that has about 40 of those employees dedicated to its promotional business with the rest mainly focused on retail products, was celebrating the fact that it is about to complete the biggest June that the company has ever had. In fact, with a week left in the month, the supplier firm – which now sells phone and tablet accessories, office products and automotive items, but began mostly as a mousepad company – has already broken its record for business in the month of June.

“The month isn’t even over, but we’ve already surpassed our biggest June ever,” says Jason Fogg, general manager of the company’s promotional division, who just began with the company at the end of last year. “So, we decided to throw a party and cater in some Mexican lunch and call it a fiesta.”

It seems, though, that this company doesn’t really need a good excuse for a party. They’ll get together and celebrate just about anything. There was the party at a local ranch – they called it Promo Rodeo – when it broke its record for sales in a year last year. Plus, another time the management gave everybody a paid day off and then sprung for everyone’s admission to a local amusement park.

But amid a celebratory and happy environment, HandStands employees also work hard for each other. They’ll chip in for a group that is particularly busy or simply job-hop when necessary to make sure a project gets done. “There’s a sense of duty to your coworkers here that’s really a joy to see,” Fogg says about staffers who can take advantage of a full basketball court, free weights, foosball and ping pong tables in the 175,000-square-foot warehouse. “We have a relaxed environment, but everyone has a clear understanding of what it takes to get the job done well.”

Those people are also able to honor each other through a formal recognition program called HandStands Heroes. If a staffer feels a co-worker went above and beyond to complete a project or helped them in an extreme way, then they can fill out a form to give them a HandStands Hero certificate. All of those throughout the year are submitted to managers for formal recognition, and then the company names a HandStands Champion at the end of the year to honor the employee who had an idea that had the biggest impact on the company’s business or operations.

And these employees work in a flexible environment that affords many opportunities for growth. The company recently instituted a program for about 30 of its production staffers in which they can come in to the office to pick up packaging projects and then work on them at home.

“We can call on them when we get busy or ramp it down when we’re less busy, and they really appreciate the flexibility,” says Ryan Wood, the company’s production manager who has been with HandStands for 16 years, but on this day is highly interested in the U.S. vs. Germany World Cup game. “I started as a driver for the company and worked my way through many roles. We have a lot of opportunities for employees to grow, and I’m even learning new things here every day.”

Wine Tasting With the

A+ Crew

If one were to take a tour of A+ Wine Designs (asi/30223) with no employees present, it wouldn’t be immediately apparent why this company is on the Best Places to Work List. Simply put, the office space is nothing fancy. Wedged in an industrial complex right next to the freeway, it’s actually a bit cramped. Most of the company’s 20+ employees have small tabletops as spaces, and owner Michael McCarron shares his tiny office with a programmer, a part-time bookkeeper and a makeshift photo studio.

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But make no mistake: During business hours, the place is abuzz with employees who are clearly happy to be there. Some of that conviviality might be attributed to the fact that the company has regular wine tastings, as they were doing the morning the Road Tour rolled in. “We’re in the wine business, so of course we need to be wine experts,” Jim Ristuccia, the company’s COO, said while pouring a glass of merlot and slowly bringing it up to his nose. McCarron started the business, which specializes in hand-carved, hand-painted wine bottles, in 1991, and the company has grown 35% per year for the last two.

A+ has brought in a sommelier for the day who, while perched under a tent, is instructing the employees on three different reds. And while they’re taking notes and some are prepping to pitch those varietals to customers, it’s clear that they’re also having a lot of fun. A large group of young women are taking selfies in the corner, and another part of the crew is noshing on the Mexican buffet that’s been brought in. This day is not an aberration. Fridays are typically mimosa mornings, and sushi is ordered in at least once a week, according to McCarron. “It’s rare for someone to take an hour to leave work and get lunch – they want to get things done, so we bring the lunch to them,” he says.

While the atmosphere is festive, the company’s employees are hard workers. It’s actually difficult for A+ to find employees who fit the company’s culture: “They’ve got to be fun and relaxed, but they also have to be able to roll from day one,” said McCarron.

Recently, he says, the company had to let go a new salesperson who didn’t fit in. “He was a really nice guy, but he just couldn’t keep up with the pace,” he says. “And he kept putting himself down, which isn’t really our mentality here. We’re super positive.”

To protect its fun, hard-driving culture, McCaron says the company takes a measured approach to hiring, and will give most new employees a “trial day” to see if the company is a good fit.

“Our key is to hire one great person at a time,” he says, “and everything else will fall into place.”

Belief is a Key Trait at

Promoshop

About a decade ago, PromoShop (asi/300446) came up with a core set of guiding principles – an idea President Memo Kahan initially hated. He came around quickly, however, and the directives, from “People are our asset!!!!!” to “Play as a team, win as a team,” inform everything it does today. The PromoShop employees even belted out the 14 Key Beliefs for the Counselor Road Tour crew on their trip inside the company’s Los Angeles-based offices.

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“Those 14 beliefs will answer any quandary you will come up with,” says Kahan.

Empowering people is a key focus at the Top 40 distributorship. Staff can give a well-reasoned argument to change just about anything. “If you don’t like the color of the wall,” says Kahan, “it doesn’t have to be that color.”

In the wake of long-time COO Jim Buescher’s death from pancreatic cancer earlier this year, PromoShop promoted a cadre of managers to shoulder the additional burden. Operations personnel, often the unsung heroes of distributorships, are included in an annual sales contest where the company is split into four teams. This year’s contest is titled “PromoShop Rocks” and is themed to the Jack Black movie School of Rock.

The company’s creative spirit is prevalent throughout its facility, which will undergo a complete renovation starting this summer. Giant inflatable figures reside in the rafters like the remnants of a Macy’s Day parade. Awards like the Longboard Club, which honors top sellers, key suppliers and others, feature a colorful surf van instead of a run-of-the-mill plaque. “When we go to supplier buildings,” says Kahan, “our award is always at the front.”

The company has parties and events throughout the year, such as an all-company Halloween party with awards as well as Secret Valentines for Valentine’s Day. Charity and food drives are huge, and the distributor prepares charity kits for places like homeless shelters as well.

“This year we had the biggest team for the pancreatic cancer walk,” says Kate Alavez, the company’s director of HR. And if employees stay long enough, they can choose from enticing five- and 10-year anniversary packages that include flat-screen TVs, high-end headphones, travel luggage and much more. Says Kahan: “We want things that are useful.”