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Secrets of Superstar Employers

March 6, 2008
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/191140

Finding and keeping top-notch employees is a challenge for any business, but smaller-sized companies have the advantage of treating employees like family, offering innovative perks and maintaining a workplace where each employee feels he or she contributes to the bottom line.

These six companies go way beyond the free snacks in the office to show that whether your employees are factory workers or computer coders, you can become a superstar employer that offers competitive company perks.

PreEmptive Solutions
Year started: 1996
Employees: 26
Employees lost last year: 2
Average length of employment: 3 years

PreEmptive Solutions, a Cleveland, Ohio-based software developer, recruits top tech talent from Silicon Valley. But the company isn't all business all the time. CEO Gabriel Torok hosts "Microbrew Fridays," where employees can sample different beers and play Guitar Hero video game challenges.

Torok keeps his employees challenged daily and recognizes their contributions in monthly supervisory meetings. Employees also participate in "forum groups," tackling specific projects like improving the office environment.

"Talented employees have many options," says Gabriel Torok, CEO of the fast-growing company. "They must feel like they contribute to a larger vision [and] enjoy the quick pace of an entrepreneurial venture."

Shazaaam! LLC
Year started: 2001
Employees: 11 full-time and 7 part-time employees
Employees lost last year: 1
Average length of employment: 5 years

Adrienne Lenhoff Wise started her Southfield, Michigan-based marketing communications firm to surround herself with people she wanted to work with on a daily basis. Almost seven years after founding Shazaaam! LLC, she's built a team-oriented company where employees have an ownership mentality and a solid work ethic.

Taking on cross-training, multiple disciplines and brainstorming, employees feel integrated into the company's success. And Lenhoff Wise supports them with benefits like child day care, company outings and a fully stocked kitchen where employees create the shopping list. Bonus accounts are also reserved for fun perks like manicures and concert tickets, or basic necessities like oil changes.

Says Lenhoff Wise, "We try to be as creative as possible and offer perks that will excite our employees and create an environment they'll love working in."

Skyline Construction
Year started: 1996
Employees: 65
Employees lost last year: 2
Average length of employment: 5 years

Skyline Construction is one of the few companies in the U.S. that uses a 100 percent employee stock ownership program, according to David Hayes, CEO of the construction firm that focuses on green building. The San Francisco-based company also has an open-book management style, in which employees have full access to the company's numbers and information, including personal and group performance and customer feedback--an unusual practice for a construction company.

From gym memberships, car allowances, performance bonuses and paid education plans to letting sales and project management staff set their own salaries--between $100,000 and $150,000--Hayes says his competitive advantage is creating the company's ownership culture.

"Great pride takes over knowing you are responsible for what happens here, not just the CEO, president or CFO," Hayes says. "It creates tremendous peer pressure to perform on all levels."

Cryptography Research Inc.
Year started: 1995
Employees: 25
Employees lost last year: 1
Average length of employment: 4.5 years

Competing for highly talented employees in the tech hub of San Francisco, Cryptography Research accounts only four employees lost in its 13 years of business. President and chief scientist Paul Kocher says it's because the company's technologists focus on solving problems, not on dealing with internal bureaucracy.

The data security company has a flat management structure, where employees can see their contributions, and are continually challenged by Cryptography's fraud-busting projects. With large bonuses, full benefits, public transportation and even occasional company trips to Hawaii and Lake Tahoe, employees are also generously rewarded.

Wheeler Interests
Year started: 1999
Employees: 34
Employees lost last year: 1
Average length of employment: 3 years

At Wheeler Interests, a real estate management company, employees can work anytime between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. and have unlimited vacation and sick days. "As long as they get their work done or delegate it out appropriately, we trust them to make the best decision regarding their time off," says CEO Jon Wheeler.

Headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the 9-year-old company is designed to keep employees happy, with natural light in each office, ergonomic furniture and free healthy catered lunches twice a week. Wheeler also plans to build a dock behind their building on the Lynnhaven Tributary to provide kayaks for employees anytime they need a break.

Caring for employees is one of the company's core values, and according to Wheeler, being a smaller company has its perks. "We make decisions quickly and implement change easily, which gives us a greater chance of retaining employees by heading off a problem at an early stage."

Quality Float Works Inc.
Year started: 1915
Employees: 27
Employees lost last year: 1
Average length of employment: 10 years

In business for 93 years, Quality Float Works of Schaumburg, Illinois, has an outstanding record of employee retention. "One of the challenges facing manufacturing is the lack of a skilled work force," says Sandra Westlund-Deenihan, CEO of the hollow metal float ball manufacturer. She offers benefits like health care, a 401(k), summer flex hours, free haircuts once a month and gym memberships.

Westlund-Deenihan also believes in treating employees like family. She provided personal loans to workers who made poor lending decisions, and she's considering paying for summer camp for employees' children as well as setting up an education fund for employees with newborns.

"Larger companies, especially those that are going overseas, have lost the concept of taking care of people," says Westlund-Deenihan. "Lean manufacturing refers to process, not people."