No. 13: Imagination Branding, Best Places to Work 2016

Things are just at ducky at this distributor, thanks to its emphasis on recognition and trust.

Counselor honors the top industry workplaces through an exclusive survey and rankings. Find out what makes Imagination Branding a great place to work!

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Rank: 13
Imagination Branding (asi/230166)

Dallas, TX
Employees: 50

The first time Chris Blocher received a “Kudo Quacker,” it meant everything. The hand-sized rubber ducks, molded into one of eight super hero characters (Blocher has collected the Flash, Green Lantern and Batman), are handed out to employees at Imagination Branding (asi/230166) who are recognized by peers as going above and beyond in their work efforts.

The duck-based peer recognition program not only allows everyone to receive credit for a job well done, but allows each and every employee a say in who’s most deserving of recognition – regardless of their position or contribution. The company’s egalitarian leadership and reward system fosters a feeling that everyone’s efforts matter, as do the opinions of their nominating peers. Even the program’s slogan (“One Team, One Dream”) is all-inclusive. Every employee who receives a duck is also entered into a series of drawings for Visa gift cards. “It’s really important to show that you’re taking a little extra time for recognition,” says Blocher, the company’s web team leader, though he is reluctant to give a title – “We really don’t have titles,” he says. “Everybody has a job requirement, and people are expected to do it.”

With all of the recent success for Imagination Branding, there have been plenty of ducks to go around. The company has grown rapidly (around 200%) in the last three years, and has doubled its workforce. Meanwhile, company cofounders Becky Link (near left in photo) and Jan Nathanson (far left) have preserved an egalitarian approach to staff responsibilities and work ethic that continues to entice employees – Blocher included, who, after 10 years of high-growth sales jobs at Fortune 100 companies, says he would never leave Imagination Branding.

Link and Nathanson’s own experiences early on inspired them to become more thoughtful and introspective about what a quality workplace entails so they could cement the loyalty of their employees. “When Jan and I first started this adventure, we were just hanging on for dear life most days, so we were just working hard and having fun at the same time,” says Link, who met Nathanson as a coworker at a distributorship and started Imagination Branding in 1989. “As we brought people on, I think we just wanted them to have fun along with us.” Certainly those employees were expected to work hard, but Link and Nathanson valued empathy and solidarity above all else as a way to engage and motivate their staff. “I think we’ve always tried to look at it from the perspective of the employee – what is it like to work here?” Link says.

Among the multitude of reasons why Imagination Branding is such a desirable place to work is that the company inspires employee input and creativity at every turn. Ideas are not only encouraged but solicited with a fierce open-door policy.

And then there is the constant recognition – peer or otherwise. “One thing Jan and Becky do extremely well is the recognition piece,” Blocher says, noting that the company’s leaders have been known to drop candy bags on staff desks during Halloween or slipping a sticky note unseen on a worker’s desk when she’s not looking, with praise for a job well done.

More to the point, Imagination employees talk of how they are not only given opportunities to learn and grown personally and professionally, but are expected to do so. When Blocher left a previous sales job to come to the Dallas-based company, he did so by switching gears to the company’s web-based strategy – an area of expertise that he explained to the company’s execs he wasn’t necessarily well versed in. “That’s part of the trust and growth thing here,” Blocher says. Rather than hire someone who fit the job perfectly, Nathanson and Link recognized Blocher’s potential, even more than Blocher believed in himself.

That management approach creates crossover conversations among staff members and inspires staff to be curious about what others do and how they can integrate services and skill sets to work more effectively. By constantly recognizing such efforts, employees say, they are perpetually motivated to do more, and connections are maintained across the company’s two main office locations in Nashville and Dallas.

That corporate culture, which drives “open, honest trust” among employees split across two office locations, is key to the company’s ongoing success. Says Nathanson, “if you hire the right people they just fall right in step with you and realize, this is a kick-ass place.”