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Best Small-Business Workplaces 2010

Find out who made our list of the best small companies for employees -- and how these five made it to the top.
September 8, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/217278
The Top Small Companies to Work For
Entrepreneur.com and the Great Place to Work Institute took a look at small employee practices in workplaces across the U.S. See the full list.

Submit your company to be considered for next year's list.

Nearly every company wants to be thought of as a great place to work. But what does that really mean? It isn't always about salaries and benefits or free coffee and doughnuts in the break room. Up-and-coming marketing gurus in Phoenix don't want -- or need -- the same perks as miners in Wisconsin. What they do share is a common desire to feel connected to and appreciated by their companies. In turn, their companies want employees who are trusting and engaged. Through its annual survey, the Great Place to Work Institute does its best to make sense of it all with research that shows a direct correlation between happy employees and profitable companies. Here are its top five small companies for 2010 -- and some noteworthy examples of things you should consider putting into practice at your company.

1. Dixon Schawbl
Location: Victor, N.Y.
Employees: 82
www.dixonschwabl.com

Like many marketing agencies, Dixon Schawbl has followed the trend of creating a more non-traditional work environment for its staff. Based in Rochester, N.Y., the company built its $3.5 million office from the ground up eight years ago, incorporating design ideas from a survey of employees who were given 72 hours to come up with a wish list for their ideal work environment.

The result is a space that features a koi pond, a pair of waterfalls, a slide that employees can take from floor to floor instead of the stairwell, a fireplace, faux-finish walls covered in quirky artwork, contemporary furniture and a padded primal scream room (which has recently been retired).

But what struck founder and CEO Lauren Dixon the most about her employees' requests were the little things.

"You'd be surprised by how many people said that they simply wanted windows that they could open, non-traditional lighting or even just walls that aren't painted white," Dixon says.

For Dixon, who co-owns the company with her husband Mike Schawbl, the building project was an eye-opening experience because it reinforced the critical role of communication and inclusiveness when it comes to management strategies.

"We believe that 10 brains are better than two," Dixon says. "We want our employees to come to us with every crazy idea they have. We challenge our employees to come up with creative ideas and raise the bar every single day."

Another reason job satisfaction has remained so high, Dixon believes, is the many opportunities employees have to give back to their community. Dixon Schawbl currently provides a number of services pro-bono to organizations such as the American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Dixon, along with many of her employees, also serves on a variety of nonprofit boards.

Not surprisingly, Dixon Schawbl regularly receives a flood of job applications from around the world. Those who make the cut enjoy a benefits package that includes vacation time, PTO, regular paid holidays, time off for birthdays, 401(k), health care, profit-sharing, maternity leave and flex time.

2. Radio Flyer
Location: Chicago, Ill.
Employees: 55
www.radioflyer.com


Radio Flyer has been one of America's most beloved brands of children's toys for almost a century, and its longevity, quite fittingly, seems to stem directly from the company's "forever young" philosophy toward the work environment.

Employees at the Chicago-based company are reminded of that philosophy every morning as they pass by the World's Largest Wagon on their way to the front door.

"We allow our people to play at work," human resources director Amy Bastuga says. "We like to warn people in interviews that if you're going to get annoyed by people shooting Nerf guns over your head, then this probably isn't the place for you."

But Bastuga insists that it's not all fun and games around the office. The company puts a priority on maintaining its values. Candidates for hire are screened extensively for their ethics and integrity, and once hired are enrolled in a year-long orientation program called "Wagon University," which is designed to instill the values and cultural norms of the company.

"In general, we believe that if you hire outstanding people and create an outstanding culture, you will produce outstanding products," Bastuga says.

In many ways, it's a culture that extends beyond the office's brightly colored walls. As part of the Eco-Flyers initiative, the organization has challenged itself to become more sustainable. Individual employees have access to an eco-friendly ride share program and are offered a monetary reimbursement for biking to work.

In addition, the company takes its social responsibility seriously. Radio Flyer is currently involved in the Lite the Night Walk for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation and recently donated thousands of wagons to the Starlight Children's Foundation for conversion into hospital sleds for kids.

Employees across the board enjoy a variety of benefits such as 401(k), profit-sharing, vacation, wellness benefits, a no-cost HMO plan, on-site yoga classes, an on-site Weight Watchers program and an indoor walking track.

3. Badger Mining Corp.
Location: Berlin, Wis.
Employees: 156
www.badgerminingcorp.com


Working for a corporation that specializes in the mining and manufacturing of silica sand may not sound like your top career choice, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another company more committed to the health, safety and security of its workers, as well as the environmental responsibility that comes with the type of work it does.

With headquarters in Berlin, Wis., Badger Mining Corp. employs approximately 175 people and has deep roots in early 20th century industrial America. For Beth Nighbor, the company's vice president of human resources, being recognized by the Great Place to Work Institute is just one more reminder that Badger is getting it right.

"It's mostly because of our people and our culture," Nighbor says. "It reinforces what we already know. When we first applied, we already thought we were doing things right. Doing what's best is our No. 1 priority."

Like most companies, Badger has struggled through the recession but has been able to weather the storm without permanently laying off any of its employees. Instead, during slow periods it implemented "rotating" layoffs, during which groups of employees were off for two to three weeks at a time, then brought back on. Eventually, business went back to normal, and all of Badger's employees were able to keep their jobs.

Beyond basic job security, Badger has also shown a substantial commitment to the education of not only its current employees, but also to future generations of workers in related fields.

"Badger Mining firmly believes in lifelong learning and education," Nighbor says. It provides educational opportunities and reimbursement to our associates who continue work-related education, as well as annual scholarships to associates' dependents who are attending an accredited two- or four-year institution. Scholarships in the amount of $10,000 each are also awarded to four area graduating high school seniors on an annual basis. These are awarded to students who will be continuing their education in the fields of engineering or environmental sciences.

In terms of benefits, Badger employees are provided with medical, dental, vision, life insurance, disability coverage, 401(k), profit-sharing, a wellness program (known as "Badger Life") biannual health-monitoring programs, long-term care, unlimited personal sick time, PTO and on-site dry cleaning.

4. Bridgeway Capital Management
Location: Houston, Texas
Employees: 33
www.bridgeway.com


Located a few blocks from Rice University in a nondescript, low-rise office building, Bridgeway Capital Management is in many ways the antithesis of the modern stereotype of financial investors.

That's due in no small part to the fact that the company gives 50 percent of its net profits to charity.

"We keep a close watch on expenses, and since half our profits go to supporting amazing causes, we spend minimally on aesthetics," marketing communications director Tony Ledergerber says. "In the industry of investment management, this is unique and a daily reminder to not be wasteful when there is so much need in the world around us."

To put this into perspective, Ledergerber says that the most unique thing about the Houston office is the countless volunteer fliers, thank-you letters and announcements from nonprofit organizations around the world that decorate its walls.

Bridgeway puts a big emphasis on philanthropy. The Bridgeway Foundation has a core mission to oppose and alleviate genocide, and the company's Individual Giving Program empowers partners to begin their own "affinity groups" related to an individual's area of interest and provides matching funds based on dollar amounts donated by individual partners.

Bridgeway officials consider themselves "stewards" of investors' money and prefer to take the long-term approach to investment strategies.

Internally, Bridgeway consists of 28 full-time "partners" who are subject to a seven-to-one salary cap, meaning that annual compensation is limited to seven times the level of the lowest paid partner.

Partners are provided with full medical, dental, vision, and short and long-term disability coverage, contributions toward family premiums, flex spending, a signing bonus, a $1,000 baby benefit for each partner's child's first birthday, cell phone reimbursement, education reimbursement, time off for volunteering, profit-sharing, 401(k), holiday bonuses, health club membership, vacation, sick leave and sabbaticals.

5. McMurry
Location: Phoenix, Ariz.
Employees: 179
www.mcmurry.com


McMurry is another marketing and public relations firm that has kept with the trend of creating a hip, contemporary work environment. When employees walk into the atrium of the main office in Phoenix, the first thing they see is a large European fountain, an assortment of plant life, vaulted ceilings and an electronic marquee that frequently displays welcome messages, project announcements and birthday wishes for staff members.

Once inside, employees enjoy the comforts of what has been dubbed the "town center," a common area that features contemporary furniture, free weights, a foosball table, a Nintendo Wii, a large-screen television that descends from the ceiling on movie days and a popcorn machine.

Instead of cubicles, team members work together in "pods" or collaborative spaces that house up to six people, and employees can choose which pods they want to work in.

Keeping the lines of communication open at McMurry is a priority in the most literal sense. Unlike cubicles, the delineated pods do not have walls, and even the more traditional offices don't have doors.

"We're not very formal," vice president of talent and culture Lee Vikre says. "We have an open-door policy. Preston [McMurry] used to say, ‘Bad things happen behind closed doors.' Even our CEO doesn't have a door on his office."

Vikre says that, in addition to all the amenities, this philosophy of open communication is the real reason McMurry has been recognized five previous times by the Great Place to Work Institute.

In fact, feedback from an employee survey in 2002 was the impetus behind the $4 million renovation project that transformed the McMurry offices into what they are today.

Unlike many companies, McMurry hasn't felt much impact from the recent recession, largely because it thrives on multi-year contracts that produce results over a period of time.

"We've actually been able to grow," Vikre says. "We don't lay people off. We have the work to keep them busy."

In addition to job security, individuals who fit the McMurry mold also enjoy a comprehensive benefits package that includes profit-sharing, quarterly massages, health care, flex time, telecommuting opportunities and PTO.