Best Places to Work 2008—Meet the Winners

You’d think it would be just awful. Facing down death day after day, losing more often than not. Growing to love people you know you will lose. Acting as a human crutch for those they leave behind.

And even if you can wrap your head around it, even if you concede that the higher calling of this particular work may counter the sadness, you still won’t have it quite right. Because the truth is, HospiceCare, Inc., is a joyful place to work. That’s right, joyful.

“We have the opportunity to meet families at a time where they’re going through something very sad, but we see the beauty and the love that they have for each other and the gifts that they’re able to find in their family member’s death and dying process,” says Claudia Craemer, an in-home social work case manager. “And that is a reminder every single day of what’s important in our own life, and a reminder to be grateful for right now.”

“Working here is just overwhelming,” agrees RN case manager Brian James. “I’ve never felt so supported in twenty years of health care than I have working among these people.”

This support is due in part to HospiceCare’s team structure, as well as the intensive counseling network. Employees are encouraged to share patient stories and memories within their teams and at the monthly all-staff meetings, and they are given the autonomy to make decisions putting patient needs first, whether that’s pain relief, a special request from the kitchen, or fulfilling a final wish.

“I’ve never been able to leave my work at the office before, but at HospiceCare I do,” says resource nurse practitioner Julie Glendenning. “I think it’s because I know my patients are well cared for. My coworkers and I are all on the same page. The trust here is enormous.”

All of these things translate to a model working environment. There’s an unmistakable skip in the step of the folks coming in and out of this building, a contagion of smiles and laughter echoing through the halls—and it’s not stopping at the front door.

HospiceCare now services more than fifty percent of the deaths in Dane County, a statistic staggering by national comparison, where most larger hospices service twenty to thirty percent at best. Equally remarkable, HospiceCare is the only hospice facility in Dane County.

“In communities of this size there are normally between twenty and fifty or sixty competing hospices,” says HospiceCare president and CEO Susan Phillips. “Competing not only for patients, but also dividing the community’s contributions. You cannot find in this country anything like this, and that’s because of how the community has supported us and supported this staff.”

In fact, community support for HospiceCare borders on zealous, from the new thirty-million-dollar facility funded entirely by local donations to what Philips says is a “nearly seamless” partnership with Madison’s three major hospitals. Perhaps most telling, nine-hundred people lined up to volunteer at HospiceCare in 2007 simply to be a part of what’s happening here.

“Fourteen years ago when people asked me what I did and I told them, they would immediately shut up and take ten steps back,” says Philips. “If this award doesn’t change impressions and misconceptions about what a joyful place this is to work, I don’t know what will.”

Julie Wollersheim-Coquard grew up among the grapevines in an exquisite little pocket of Prairie du Sac, where bald eagles regularly fish the Wisconsin River and gentle breezes roll off the Baraboo bluffs. Her father, Bob Wollersheim, a UW–Madison engineering professor, left teaching and restored the long-dormant nineteenth-century winery in 1972 so that he would have more time with his wife and three children. The family expanded in 1985 when Julie married Philippe Coquard, a French winemaker, and Philippe’s talent took the small winery from production levels of eight thousand gallons a year to today’s annual total of 225,000. Philippe was named winemaker of the year in 1995 by Wineries Unlimited, and last year the company produced its one millionth bottle.

When Bob succumbed to brain cancer in 2005, Philippe and Julie took over the business, and dedicated themselves to continuing Bob’s legacy of family, education and appreciation for the little things. And it’s clear, so very clear, to all who visit or work here. Whether in the cozy gift shop, or down in the cool must of the underground limestone wine cellar, or amid the intriguing alchemy of the fermentation rooms and their giant fat vats, a calm hum is in the air. Staff members smile as though they can’t quite help themselves, and find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly they love most about working at Wollersheim. Part of it is enthusiasm for the product, certainly, as well as the work ethic Philippe and Julie display (“Julie and Philippe work tirelessly and more hours than any of us can fathom”) and the commitment to educating the staff (“Bob instilled confidence in everybody that he worked with”). The common thread, though, is the sense of belonging.

“Philippe and Julie put family first, then wine,” says Dixie Lea, operations manager. “It took me awhile to really believe and understand that, but that’s the way it is. If any of us have a problem, then out the door we go because we belong at home, not here. And while we’re here, we’re truly a part of their family.”

The rumor on the street is that Steve Brown doesn’t exist. His name sounds like some kind of brand the marketing department dreamed up and stamped on dozens of buildings downtown—and it’s everywhere. But inside company headquarters, a three-story brick bungalow on Gorham, Steve Brown is very real. If he weren’t, maintenance technician Phil Weinfurter wouldn’t have a truck that runs, or a house for his three boys. When Weinfurter was struggling, Brown helped him get both without hesitation.

“I told Steve that day I would never leave,” says Weinfurter. Ten years later he’s still true to his word.

Each of the thirty-four employees, from the housekeepers on up to director of operations, has a similar story. They speak reverently of a working environment that’s fun, one where they each feel they are making a difference. Where they are constantly told they are appreciated. Where they have autonomy in making decisions, and passing the buck is never tolerated. All of this, they say, comes from Steve Brown, and because of it, they work very, very hard for him.

“There’s no fear of losing my job,” explains Dan Seeley, a community manager. “It’s a fear of disappointing my boss.”

Maybe it’s the way he built his empire from the ground up, with only a “pickup truck and a plunger,” as he’s fond of saying. Maybe it’s the way he has surrounded himself with talented people, and then trusted them to spread their wings. Maybe it’s his philosophy that all people should be treated well. Whatever it is, it has translated to gold.

“Everyone always asks if Steve Brown exists,” says Dan. “He’s here almost every day of the week, a lot of times longer than we are. He cares about Madison and he cares about the people who work for him. He exists.”

We didn’t have the opportunity to debunk the myth for ourselves—Steve politely declined to be interviewed. “The employees will say it all,” he said. “They’re the ones who really deserve the congratulations on this.”

It looks like your stereotypical office space. Line after line of cubicles, the soft hum of fluorescent lights illuminating various shades of crème, bone and pewter; maybe a little eggshell.

Down one corridor a man approaches. He’s plainly dressed and though he walks with a purpose, he stops every few feet to engage the people inside cubicles. He addresses each of them by first name, asks about their kids, their ailing parents, their dog at the vet. Eventually he makes it to his corner office, the one marked CEO. He does not shut his door.

Former CEO Marty Preizler has worked in the HMO business for twenty-four years, the last ten of them at Physicans Plus. The twenty-year-old local business is now a $400 million company and the twenty-fifth largest employer in Dane County—but these successes aren’t what Preizler is most proud of.

“I’m not one to take credit for much,” he says, “but I do think the emphasis on work-life balance was something I brought here.”

Whether it’s the photos of Preizler’s grandkids that pop up in every Power Point presentation he gives, the two paid days each employee is given annually to pursue volunteer work, or the twelve paid weeks that moms—and dads—are given when a new child is born, there’s no mistaking Preizler means what he says. He’s also implemented dozens of ways to make a company of one-hundred-thirty employees continue to feel like a mom-and-pop, from cross-departmental committees to constant opportunities for get-togethers to an intranet system detailing every step the company takes (and why) and including an easy, one-click button to e-mail Preizler directly if they don’t feel like getting up and walking over to that corner office with the wide-open door.

Preizler retired in January, and he says this award is the capstone to his career.

“As I leave, I could look at our finances and say we’ve got this much in assets and we’ve grown here and we’ve done this,” says Preizler, “but the thing that is most meaningful to me is what a joyful place it is to be.”

Gandhi said you must be the change you wish to see in the world, but many people can test this mantra in their off-hours only. In a warehouse on the north side of town, there’s a remarkable microcosm unfolding. It’s not a utopia, but it might be enough to restore hope in even the most jaded of cynics.

It’s not just what they do in that warehouse, though that’s a huge part of it. Breaking down computers, medical equipment and other electronic devices into fifty different recyclable components. Handling security, environmental and ethical issues in sustainable ways. Moving between 500,000 and 1.2 million pounds of equipment through the building each month.

It’s not just the facility they are doing it in, which is strategically placed based on employee addresses and access to the Interstate to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Concrete walls, recycled steel framing, recycled building materials from local sources. Refurbished and recycled furnishings throughout, like the conference room table made from pressed sunflower seeds.

More than these things, it’s the people inside. Within Cascade Asset Manage-ment’s eighty-four-member employee pool, six different countries and eight different languages are represented. CEO and co-founder Neil Peters-Michaud works closely with veterans industries and refugee services to recruit employees. He offers on-site ESL classes and a host of activities like soccer games, picnics and daily touch-base meetings to unify and empower his staff.

“It makes you want to come to work,” says Vernon Hill, a driver who says he knew very little about environmental issues or the backgrounds of the diverse population he works with before Cascade. “This is my second family. The respect everybody shows for each other is just tremendous.”

Though Cascade recently restructured—eliminating twenty employees from its second and third shifts to move focus from disassembly to asset management—it continues to grow, adding a projected fifteen-hundred employees over the next four to five years.

Peters-Michaud says his number-one priority throughout these changes is maintaining the current culture.

“I didn’t expect that part of the job, but it’s the most fulfilling part,” he says. “The impact we have on so many lives.”

There’s something sort of revolutionary happening over on Mineral Point Road. Rejuvenation Spa is rapidly becoming an industry innovator, earning award after award after award for a simple yet powerful philosophy: They are a team. Stylists are not paid commission—this fact alone makes them unique in this area—but rather receive an hourly rate plus a percentage of the profits each month. New hires are subject to team interviews. The owners practice an open-door policy and open-book management, displaying profit and loss statements and company goals in full view.

“Open-book management alone freaks out most small business owners,” laughs Tina Morschauser, co-owner of Rejuvenation Spa. Morschauser started Rejuvenation in 1998, co-owner Gretchen Brown joined in 2000, and in 2001 they began their team-based initiatives. “But this whole thing has made our environment so much stronger. And now people seek us out because they’ve heard this is a good place to work, and clients tell us what a pleasure it is to come here.”

Manager Alexandria Benter joined the Rejuvenation team in 2001, two months before the transition to team-based pay. “The people who weren’t a good fit for this type of environment all left and it made our team stronger,” she says. “It was like night and day.”

Awards have been rolling in for Rejuvenation, including one at the Global Salon Business Awards in London for entrepreneurial excellence in team philosophy, besting more than three hundred salons from more than twenty different countries. They’ve also been named in Salon Today Magazine‘s 200 Fastest Growing Salons list for six consecutive years.

Though talent and education are still priorities in hiring new employees, Morschauser and Brown say the personality of a candidate is equally important to the bottom line, if not more.

“People who fit our culture are more important than people who have a particular skill because we can always train the skill,” says Gretchen. “You can’t train them to fit with your culture—we’ve discovered that many times over.”

This easily could have been a different story. The owner of a small promotional business retires, passing the reins on to her daughter-in-law, a teacher. A girl who looks half the age of many of the people she’ll manage. A girl who’s never sold so much as a pen in her life. Fortunately for the staff at Creative Marketing Specialists, that’s not how it happened here.

When Jennifer Bushnell-Persike started working for the mother of her high school boyfriend after school, she immediately loved the business. She liked the idea of helping other companies grow with the promotional items they sold, and she appreciated that her boss made her feel her job was critical, no matter how seemingly menial the task. That’s why she stayed on, even though she went off to college to earn a teaching degree. That’s why in 1999, after only three and a half years of teaching, she returned to CMS.

Bushnell-Persike worked hard, first in filing, then climbing her way up through each of the positions in the small company. This is how, when her now mother-in-law decided to retire and Bushnell-Persike and her husband purchased the business, she had solidly earned the respect and devotion of her new staff. A staff that felt so strongly about their work environment they nominated CMS for this award, and scored a rare one-hundred percent in three of the six indicators of employee satisfaction: life-work balance, connection and management.

“Jennifer is the person who makes our company run in the manner it does,” says Deb Jafolla-Ponzio, a senior promotional executive. “Her wisdom and insight into our industry and how people want and need to be treated inspires us.”

It’s not easy in a small business. Bushnell-Persike can’t afford company cars and large bonuses for her staff. So it’s the little things, like extra days off, hand-written cards or giving them some of the products the company sells.

“Every chance I get I might surprise them with a little something,” says Bushnell-Persike.

More effectively, she’s diligent about creating an environment that no one wants to leave, one that’s supportive, flexible and rewarding. And she continues to work hard herself.

“I’m not afraid to do anything I ask of them,” says Bushnell-Persike. “We’re all a team. It takes all of us to get where we’re going.”

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.