Best Places to Work 2012

Best Places to Work 2012
Clockwise from top left: The workplaces of Coventry Village Retirement Community, Willy Street Co-op, Harvest Restaurant and American Players Theatre.

NOTE: We are now accepting nominations for our 2014 Best Places to Work. Click for more information. 

Two years ago, while announcing the results of our third Best Places to Work survey, we wrote these words: “We know what you’re thinking: After two years spinning in an economic crisis, with national unemployment rates teeter-tottering toward ten percent … any job is a good job. Every company is a Best Place to Work.”


There’s no point in sugarcoating it: things have been hard. In the four years since the economic downturn, many of us face tougher challenges than ever before. Rebecca Ryan, founder of Next Generation Consulting, the company that facilitates our Best Places to Work survey, wasn’t even sure how many businesses would bother applying this year.

“Even though unemployment is lower in Madison than in the state overall, it’s still high for this city historically and, you know, who wants to say they’re a Best Place to Work after they’ve pink-slipped five percent of their staff?” she says. “So I was shocked at how many nominations came in.”

In fact, a record number—110 area businesses—threw their collective hats in the ring this year. Ryan also reports more companies than ever before have requested their own results of the extensive project—based on interviews and surveys with more than 50,000 respondents in the U.S., Canada, and western Europe—and Ryan thinks that’s a good sign. “My hunch is they are interested in more than just getting themselves a spot on the list,” she says. “If companies really do want to have their thumb on the pulse of their associates through this employee engagement survey, I think that’s a very, very positive thing.”

The survey anonymously measures six areas of employee engagement: trust, management, development, rewards, connection, and life-work balance. To qualify to compete, at least half of each company’s employees must fill out the extensive survey, a mix of both pointed and open-ended questions. This year, they also had to fill out additional surveys measuring two new factors, diversity and sustainability.

“We added sustainability because we think there’s a real sensitivity to this in Dane County and we wanted our businesses to be able to showcase the things that they do,” says Ryan. “We added diversity because we see the demographics of the changing workforce and we know that people who are fluent in diversity are going to have a competitive advantage in the future.”

Once the field had been narrowed to forty companies, experts from Sustain Dane and Beth Churchill joined Next Generation Consulting to study each company’s efforts in areas such as health and wellness programs; responsible food practices; energy, water and waste management; and diversity measures including percent non-white, average age and gender breakdowns. While many Madison-area businesses are clearly excelling in environmental and health sustainability efforts, it would appear they have a long way to go when it comes to diversity—and so does this inaugural component of our survey.

“I think it’s meaningful, important and underrated,” says Moses Altsech, marketing department chair in Edgewood College‘s MBA program and CEO of, a Madison-based private consulting firm. “You can’t say, ‘We’re really open-minded and culturally sensitive but we don’t have any black employees.’ That doesn’t cut it. At the same time, the numbers are only a starting point.”

Altsech says beyond employing people of varying racial, cultural and religious backgrounds, physical and mental abilities, gender, ages and sexual orientation, it’s just as important to make clear that you value these differences, not simply tolerate them, that they’re “valued members of the team and you didn’t just hire them for show.” He says workplaces that embrace diversity excel because the people are regularly challenged, constantly exposed to different ideas and perspectives, sparking creative thinking.

“You get extraordinary ways of looking at ordinary things from having diversity in the room,” says Altsech. “It’s an asset for any workplace. It makes it a better place to work, and it makes the company a better company.”

Overall, winning workplaces in the Madison area are doing a remarkable job. We can’t help but marvel, as we sift through page after page of heartfelt, confidential responses—with the hard data to back them up—at the good work these companies are doing in the face of tremendous challenges. These winners are not merely surviving tough times, they’re thriving.

“These are places that still, in spite of the challenges that they face, in spite of the adversity, in spite of the fierce competition, in spite of all these things, have managed to maintain a positive work environment,” says Altsech, “where the people are just delighted to be there. Where they talk about their colleagues like they’re family. Where it’s not, ‘Oh thank God I have a job,’ but actually ‘I love this place.’ And I’m not saying it in front of my boss or for a camera on TV, I’m saying it in a secret survey. I’m saying, ‘This is a spectacular place to be.'”


Click to watch WISC-TV coverage of a Best Places to Work winner.

Click to watch Madison Magazine editor Brennan Nardi and WISC-TV3’s Charlotte Deleste talk about Best Places to Work.

Top 10 organizations with Over 100 Employees
Ranked by best score based on 80 percent employee engagement, 15 percent sustainability and 5 percent diversity

1. Coventry Village Retirement
Coventry Village Retirement accommodates senior citizens’ every need, from top-notch assisted care to luxurious accommodations for independent residents.

2. UW Credit Union
With nineteen branches statewide, UW Credit Union is a federally insured financial institution that provides customized services to meet the money management goals of more than 163,000 members.

3. Keller Williams Realty
Keller Williams Realty offers the Madison area professional assistance in buying and selling homes with a focus on adhering to a “Culture of Caring.”

4. First Choice Dental
Offering award-winning services for over thirty years, First Choice Dental is a one-stop shop for everything from cosmetic dentistry to youth and adult orthodontics.

5. The QTI Group
Headquartered in Madison, The QTI Group offers human resources and staffing organization services at twelve branches statewide.

6. Steve Brown Apartments
Steve Brown Apartments rents countless accommodations ranging from luxurious to affordable and comfortable throughout the Dane County area.

7. Madison Mallards Baseball Club
The Madison Mallards Baseball Club not only strives to build a successful sports team, but also strong community relations in and around Madison.

8. Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP
Baker Tilly Virchow Krause is a full-service accounting and advisory firm staffed by specialized professionals.

9. M3 Insurance Solutions, Inc.
M3 Insurance is Wisconsin’s largest privately held commercial insurance agency, serving clients across Wisconsin since 1968.

10. Willy Street Co-op
With two Madison branches, Willy Street Co-op is a full-service grocery cooperative specializing in locally made, organic and natural foods.

Top 10 organizations with Under 100 Employees
Ranked by best score based on 80 percent employee engagement, 15 percent sustainability and 5 percent diversity

1. Pro Health Chiropractic
Pro Health Chiropractic offers quality chiropractic and wellness services at their Madison and Sun Prairie offices.

2. Loren Imhoff Homebuilder, Inc.
Loren Imhoff Homebuilder combines expert design, quality construction and the finest materials to help complete any home building or remodeling projects.

3. Pilch & Barnet
Pilch & Barnet is a destination marketing agency that loves to create new brands, concepts and marketing strategies, with a focus on the final outcome.

4. Harvest Restaurant, LLC
Harvest is a Capitol Square fine dining restaurant with a focus on local and organic ingredients.

5. Rhapsody Arts Center
Rhapsody Arts Center offers a diverse array of music, art and theater lessons to children of all ages.

6. American Players Theatre
American Players Theatre offers world-class performances in both their outdoor Up-the-Hill theater and the indoor Touchstone theater.

7. Forward Community Investments
Forward Community Investments provides advisory services and loans to non-profit organizations serving the Madison area’s most in-need communities.

8. Madison NO FEAR Dentistry
Located on Madison’s west side, NO FEAR Dentistry is a full-service dentistry office with a focus on comfort.

9. South Madison Coalition for the Elderly
The South Madison Coalition for the Elderly is a nonprofit agency providing social services for older adults throughout Dane County.

10. Strategic Brand Marketing, LLC
Strategic Brand Marketing offers brand development and marketing services through their exclusive Strategic Brand System.


As thorough and extensive as the Best Places to Work survey is, there are some workplaces so obviously attractive you don’t need stats and spreadsheets to tell you so. There’s just something about the vibe that’s apparent as soon as you walk through the front door. Coventry Village Retirement CommunityMadison Magazine‘s 2012 overall Best Places to Work winner—is one of those places.

“Pretty much everyone who works here says they want to live here, too,” says marketing director Maria Carlton. “I figure that’s a good sign.”

Coventry—a community of 102 independent living apartments, forty-six owner-occupied condos, and seventy-four private assisted-care suites perched upon twenty-two acres on Madison’s far west side—has a reputation in the community for great care; it’s no coincidence that its 126 employees feel so well cared for by the company.

“It’s fulfilling because I don’t have to fib about anything,” says employee Jane Roemer. “What people see when they walk around here—residents smiling, staff smiling—is what you get. People are happy. It’s just a good place to be.”

It’s all about the people, according not only to anonymous survey results, but also to every staff member we informally polled onsite. Part of it may be the naturally nurturing characters of people drawn to patient care, but an equally important piece is creating a culture where caregivers are confident they can meet those residents’ needs.

“Rather than a top-down corporate type of culture where the company thinks it knows what’s best for residents, here it’s more grassroots,” says executive director Bruce Beckman. “It feels good when you’re able to serve the residents in that way and to listen and respond based on their feedback, and not just have the newest, latest corporate mandate coming down saying you have to do this in a certain way.”

Beckman’s office is immediately next door to the employee break room, as well as a handful of other business offices with open-door policies; employees and residents alike are encouraged to walk in anytime, and they do. The competitive pay and benefits don’t hurt, either, with perks like onsite exercise and shower facilities, fifty-percent employee discount on the chef-prepared lunch meals, and extensive development opportunities via monthly training sessions, tuition reimbursement programs and thousands of dollars in continuing education scholarships awarded each year. But above all else it’s the sense of service, in an environment that encourages the best service possible, that drives the majority of the satisfied staff at Coventry.

“I think most of the people who work here have really deep-rooted feelings about serving,” says Beckman. “It’s not just a job for most people here.”


It’s a nonprofit, a co-op and a lending institution, in a time of big business, cutbacks and widespread distrust of the U.S. financial system as a whole—and yet, according to its 384 employees, year after year, it’s a fantastic company and a phenomenal place to work. What gives?

“I think the employees really feel they have a lot in common with the direction of the organization,” says Lee Wiersma, executive VP and chief human resources officer. “Over the years we’ve done a good job of recruiting people that match our core values, so they’re going to be more successful here.

They believe in what we are trying to do.”

What they’re trying to do, according to the UW Credit Union‘s Core Values, is “act in the members’ best interest, respect people, value teamwork, deliver quality, and foster continuous learning”—strikingly similar, in fact, to what the BPTW survey measures. If the bottom line is any indication, cultivating these core values—with nineteen branches statewide and plans to open locations in Milwaukee in 2012 and north Madison in 2013 (adding at least fifteen new hires to the roster)—is working.

“The four years since the onset of the recession have been our best forty-eight months with 40,000 new members, six new branch offices, and significant improvements in productivity,” says Paul Kundert, president and CEO. “At the end of the day, it’s the kind of service we’re providing to customers and members that sustains us. And we really don’t believe philosophically that our employees can put the focus on the member if their own needs aren’t being met.”

There’s no question UW Credit Union meets the needs of its employees. Not a single hire starts at less than $11.30/hour, and all employees have access to high-quality healthcare at a reasonable price, 401(k) matching, and “earned time off,” a combination of sick days and personal days—and you don’t have to explain which it is (“I think people appreciate being treated like adults,” says Wiersma.) Not only that, UW Credit Union will buy back earned time off hours each year if you’ve got a surplus of those hours banked. Oh, and your birthday is a paid holiday.

There are also numerous opportunities for development, a casual-dress environment and values-driven opportunities like the Green Team, where a rotation of seven staff members works to implement eco-focused strategies (UW Credit Union scored second highest in the sustainability rankings and has purchased one hundred- percent renewable energy from MG&E since 2008.) There’s also the new “Credit Consultation” program, an effort to assist people in trouble by providing free financial counseling. The company has performed more than 6,200 of these consultations to date, saving people “millions of dollars in interest.”

But make no mistake—every policy and initiative in place at UW Credit Union is there because it makes good business sense.

“I don’t want people to think we’re this soft culture that’s excessively nurturing or something,” says Kundert. “We have very high performance minded goals. But we want to pursue them in a way that’s sustainable and viable long-term.”

One key aspect of the company’s success is recruiting and developing “really good leaders throughout the organization,” each empowered to motivate and nurture the employees for whom they are responsible. This means heavily investing in leadership training for sixty-six managers company-wide.

“One of the worst things that can happen to you in life is to have a jerk for a boss,” says Kundert. “We’re trying to make sure that people here have the best possible relationship with their supervisor, and that takes an investment in resources.”

It also means encouraging commun-ication and transparency throughout the organization. “We want to be the kind of organization where management can be challenged,” he says. “If we’re messing up, we’d much rather have an employee address it than discover it through loss of customers.”

At the start of the recession, as UW Credit Union braced itself for the unknown and strategized how best to continue putting members first, they temporarily curtailed some employee benefits. Nobody was exempt from this (least of all executive staff), and the cuts have since been restored. The point is, the process was thoroughly communicated from start to finish.

“We told them preserving employment was our top priority,” says Kundert. “I think as soon as people heard that, they could get back to really advancing the business. The result has been this tremendous increase in volume.”

And a back-to-back 2010/2012 Madison Magazine Best Places to Work.


This year’s survey measured a new component of business success—sustainability—and Willy Street Co-op came out on top. In addition to creating a winning workplace in the standard key areas of employee engagement, the co-op continues to lead the charge in sustainable practices for staff as well as the community at large.

An internal website encourages communication among 284 employees, especially when it means swapping surplus garden hauls or sharing rides to work. There’s an onsite company garden for harvesting lunch fixings, and employees get twenty percent off all food—locally and responsibly sourced as much as possible (as 28,000 Willy Street Co-op members well know). Health and wellness programs encourage biking to work, and responsible drivers love the electric charging stations and the east side’s solar-paneled pumping station (the preheated water is then piped back to the store’s water’s heater). These are benefits to both employees and members alike, as are the rooftop solar panels, rain garden, participation in MG&E’s Green Power Tomorrow program, serious recycling efforts including compostable packaging in the deli, bag credits, use of environmentally sound cleaning products and the co-op’s employment of an extra-handy maintenance staff to reuse and fix things as much as possible.

Then there’s the cooperative model itself, which should not be underestimated when it comes to sustainability. “There aren’t those extra steps of stuff getting shipped somewhere else, or someone outside of the community making decisions, trying to please a national audience,” says Brendon Smith, director of communications. “There are fewer links in the chain. It’s a pretty tight circle, and I think that helps keep it sustainable.”

Local resources stay local, and having heavily invested, healthy, engaged, passionate employees means Willy Street Co-op is a great place to work.


Despite opening Sun Prairie and Madison locations just three short years ago (after twelve years in Tennessee), Pro Health Chiropractic is already making quite a name for itself. Sun Prairie Star readers awarded them Best Customer Service citywide for two years running, not to mention Best Doctor in 2011 and Best Chiropractor in 2012. This year they add Madison Magazine‘s 2012 BPTW in the under 100 employees category award to the mantle.

“We pride ourselves most on our customer service,” says owner Dr. Dawn Cadwallader, “and that’s a direct result of the work we do on ourselves as a staff.”

That work includes weekly, goal-focused training with emphasis on communication skills, using personality tests to speak each other’s language and foster effective, respectful confrontation when issues arise. This also improves communication with patients, who now visit Pro Health to the tune of 1,000 visits each month. Staff may need to arrive as early as 6 a.m. or work until 7:30 p.m. to best serve this patient load, but the whole office closes for several hours across lunch so they can exercise, meet service commitments or otherwise maintain health and life-work balance.

“We try to help our staff grow who they are on the inside,” says Cadwallader, “so they can be who they need to be for the clinic.”


We couldn’t help noticing that this year’s Best Place to Work awards included five nonprofit organizations, including UW Credit Union.

“I think it’s just this mythical, long-standing belief we’ve had that money motivates people, and anybody who’s ever been an effective manager or leader of an organization knows that money is a maintainer, but it’s not a retainer,” says Rebecca Ryan, whose company facilitated the survey. “If you want to keep people you have to appeal to their highest selves, to help them believe there’s a cause beyond themselves that they’re working for, and that they’re really leaving the world a better place. Nonprofits have a built-in advantage here.”

While it’s clear a sense of service and connection can be just as valuable as pay and benefits, just because you’re dialed into your mission doesn’t mean you’ve got a great workplace.

“You can very easily have an unhappy, miserable, unpleasant non-profit because of the way it’s managed,” says Moses Altsech, adding that nonprofits are also facing unique challenges in this tough economy.

“Things are a little more uncertain for them right now, their fundraising is harder to do, some of them have had services cut, and that stress disproportionately affects the quality of working there,” says Altsech, “and yet these winners love it. Even in a time of crisis and cutbacks and unusual challenges, they are still upbeat, still excited. They love what they do.”

South Madison Coalition of the Elderly
“We have a culture of excellence when it comes to performance,” says executive director Marcia Hendrickson. “Our expectations are very clear, and we expect our people to work as hard as they can to far exceed them.” To do so, the twenty-three employees are encouraged to help with each other’s workloads, and Hendrickson believes proper life-work balance makes for far more efficient, productive staff—so she kicks them all out the door at quitting time. “That’s enforced.”

American Players Theatre
In an industry not necessarily known for empowering its actors, APT is unique; there’s a definite sense the company belongs to its twenty-two year-round employees (the number swells in-season.) Even the mission statement is handwritten by each staff member, one line at a time, reinforcing this message. “We listen and make sure everybody is part of the team in a very real way,” says director of communications Sara Young, “not just lip service.”

Forward Community Investments
“We make it as family friendly as possible,” says president Salli Martyniak. “We’re here to put in a good solid workweek, but we respect the fact that life happens outside of work.” Employees earn incentives based on values-driven individual goals, and “there’s not a lot of finger pointing.” Staff is treated with appreciation beyond the paycheck, because “it’s foolish and shortsighted to think that as an employer it’s just a one-way relationship.”

Rhapsody Arts Center
“I think the overall feel is that we’re not for profit, we’re here because we really want to be doing this,” says managing director Leo Van Asten, citing extraordinary coworkers, a warm, welcoming atmosphere and remarkable absence of ego among the highly skilled instructors as part of why the twenty-one employees love their jobs so much. “What counts here is the character of the people; it’s just a nice place to come to work.”


Here’s how the winning companies’ employees (in the anonymous survey) described their workplaces

Keller Williams Realty
(#3, Over 100 Employees)

At the Madison location of this international real estate franchise company, employees participate in a profit-sharing program.

“We are very unusual for a real estate company in that we share profits and therefore the performance of the whole company matters to each of us. [It] creates a culture of sharing in an otherwise very competitive sales environment.”

First Choice Dental  
(#4, Over 100 Employees)

With ten offices in Madison and beyond, this dental practice (a Best Place to Work in 2006) attracts loyal patients—and employees.

“I think the reason that so many people stay with First Choice Dental for so long is due to the appreciation from the company and the recognition given. I have never felt so appreciated in the workplace and so heard by my management and team.”

The QTI Group
 (#5, Over 100 Employees)

A “full-service” human resources provider, this company provides staffing, consulting and more, and helps its own staff engage in the broader community.

“Our management team encourages us to think about our professional development at work as well as our personal development in the community. They encourage QTI employees to volunteer and join boards throughout the community.

Steve Brown Apartments
(#6, Over 100 Employees)

The staff of this thirty-year-old company is hard-working and compassionate toward its tenants and each other. They were a Best Place to Work in 2008.

“We have ‘Caught Doing Something Good’ awards for going the extra mile for our residents, helping out fellow employees or for just taking care of something that others walk by or ignore.”

Madison Mallards Baseball Club
(#7, Over 100 Employees)

This company of more than 150 employees works and plays hard, hosting collegiate Northwoods League games at the “Duck Pond” on the city’s north side. 

“I have never seen a more customer-focused organization in my life. Our place of work is a fun place. It is a great feeling knowing your customers enjoyed their time at the ballpark.”

Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP
(#8, Over 100 Employees)

The work of this accounting and advisory firm—with eleven branches, including one in Madison—extends to 120 countries. Yet it excels in keeping its staff informed.

“Our leadership makes a point to explain decisions and keep us updated on the overall status of the company.”

M3 Insurance Solutions, Inc.
(#9, Over 100 Employees)

The state’s largest privately held commercial insurance agency, founded in 1968, offers great benefits for employees. M3 was also named a Best Place to Work in 2010.

“For a company of less than two hundred employees we have seven people dedicated to development of our staff. I think this shows a great committment.”

Loren Imhoff Homebuilder, Inc.  
(#2, Under 100 Employees)

Loren Imhoff began his career as a home builder in 1983 and has grown his company into a community-minded organization and frequent Parade of Homes participant.

“Loren leads by example. He makes sure we have the proper skills, tools, etc., and then steps back. He allows us to make
mistakes and learn from them.”

Pilch & Barnet
(#3, Under 100 Employees)

This dynamic “destination marketing” agency has developed campaigns for more than 100 communities and organizations.

“We are located downtown, right on State Street. It is the epicenter of Madison life and we are encouraged to take advantage of it.”

Harvest Restaurant, LLC
(#4, Under 100 Employees, #1 Diversity)

Owner Tami Lax has grown this popular downtown restaurant into a leader in using sustainable, local ingredients, and she offers generous, delicious rewards to her staff.

“The communication lines are always open and welcome at Harvest, making it possible to discuss strengths and weaknesses, and further developing the skills to succeed.”

Madison NO FEAR Dentistry
(#8, Under 100 Employees)

Located on the city’s west side, this dental practice is dedicated to creating worry-free experiences for its patients.

“We have daily communication and feedback in a fifteen-minute morning huddle. We can see very quickly how our actions and behaviors impact our clients. This is led and supported by our management.”

Strategic Brand Marketing, LLC
(#10, Under 100 Employees)

The motto of this marketing firm is “Mindshare equals Marketshare,” and its team is known for unique campaigns.

“We work together as a team, and everybody’s input is respected. It makes it easy to work for a company that truly cares about their clients at a time when customer service is lacking.”


(Hint: It’s Not About the Money)

A summary of all survey responses from the twenty winners provides a Madison Best Places to Work scorecard on the six areas of engagement. Employees rated their employers best at Connection and the others as follows:

1. Connection (92.6%)
2. Trust (92.0%)
3. Management (91.2%)
4. Life-Work Balance (90.1%)
5. Development (86.8%)
6. Rewards (81.2%)

When employees were asked to rank the level of importance of each area of engagement, Life-Work Balance was voted the No. 1 driver of engagement and the others as follows:

1. Life-Work Balance (71.9%)
2. Trust (60.2%)
3. Connection (58.3%)
4. Development (40.0%)
5. Rewards (36.7%)
6. Management (29.6%)


Madison Magazine and WISC-TV3’s Best Places to Work is based on an employee-engagement framework developed by Next Generation Consulting. A total of sixty-five organizations qualified for the award by submitting a sustainability and diversity survey and achieving fifty percent or greater staff
participation on the employee engagement survey. Employees were asked to rate their employer in a forty-question, web-based survey that measures
companies in these six “areas of engagement”:

1) Trust
Working in an environment where information is shared and people act with integrity and respect

2) Management
Working with supervisors and managers who lead, guide and give feedback to individuals and teams

3) Development
Having opportunities to learn and grow

4) Rewards
Being compensated and appreciated according to one’s performance and contribution to an organization

5) Connection
Feeling a part of something bigger; working for more than just a paycheck

6) Life-Work Balance
Having flexibility to pursue their career and a life outside of work

The winning companies for 2012 were chosen because they ranked the highest in all six dimensions of employee engagement.


Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a Madison-area writer.

Read about the and Best Places to Work.