8 tips for bountiful bennies

Are you really taking care of the people who take care of your customers? That’s the fundamental question behind IB’s second annual Best Companies feature, and it’s a question that is affirmatively answered by the business organizations that sit atop our Best Companies ranking.

By virtue of their generous benefits packages and employee-friendly company cultures, our Best Companies benefit from a higher number of long-tenured employees, but the organizational benefits don’t end there. To give upstart companies an idea of how elite companies attract and retain employees, we spoke to several of our top-scoring employers. 

Obviously, because of their size and longevity, they can offer more in the way of employee benefits, but they’ve all stayed ahead of the benefit curve. This not only enables them to meet the coverage mandates of the Affordable Care Act, and do so with ease, it also allows them to offer the kind of cutting-edge benefit packages that attract and retain people with the skills needed for organizational excellence.

In structuring their benefits packages, they look at competitors in their respective industries, and at what’s going on in the Madison market, and they try to position themselves as leaders in both. Here are 8 tips to help growing companies pattern themselves after a Best Company. 

Tip 1: Move health care forward

In most cases, the most coveted benefit is medical insurance, which is also the most expensive benefit. Under the Affordable Care Act, all individuals not covered by Medicaid or Medicare must obtain medical insurance or pay penalties. Employer-provided health insurance coverage, provided it meets the federal government’s “minimum essential coverage” standard as defined by the Department of Health and Human Services, would satisfy this universal coverage requirement. While the ACA does not require employers to provide health insurance coverage, if they have 50 or more employees and do not provide minimum essential coverage, they will be required to pay an additional tax to help subsidize workers’ health care coverage.

Strength in numbers: For years, Stafford Rosenbaum law firm has benefited from participation in the Dane County Bar Association health plan, where it is rated on the experience of a much larger group.

The rocky implementation of the law has led to calls to delay the individual mandate, just as the government has delayed the employer mandate by one year until January of 2015. Delay or no delay, meeting the qualifying coverage mandate is not much of a challenge for our top-rated Best Companies, some of which added features like domestic partner benefits several years ago.

The Affordable Care Act does impose an additional health plan tax that is adding roughly 5% to the cost of CUNA Mutual Group’s medical insurance plan, but it has the coverage bases covered. “We’ve been tracking the ACA pretty carefully, and the mandate really doesn’t affect our qualified plans,” says David Sargent, CUNA’s senior vice president of human resources. “There’s really nothing coming through the ACA that we haven’t really thought through.”

Tip 2: Don’t settle

Until a recent change in direction, Mortenson Construction had perfectly acceptable health insurance benefits, but the company thought it could gain more efficiency, for both itself and its employees, by moving to consumer-driven health plans. Two years ago, it launched health savings accounts and health reimbursement accounts that basically compel employees to be more savvy consumers of health care — more savvy because they manage their own accounts and therefore have more incentive to spend the money wisely.

As part of the transition, the company decided to sunset its preferred provider, or PPO, plan this year. Employees can now choose between two types of consumer-driven plans: the health reimbursement account, which is owned by the employer, and the health savings account, which is controlled by the employee. Those aren’t the only distinctions between the two plans, but they are designed to have consumers manage more of the money they spend and, theoretically, save on health care costs. Money is deposited into these accounts tax-free.

Molly Weiss, director of human resources for Mortenson, says the company will match a certain percentage of what each member employee chooses to place into the account. To aid and abet health consumerism, Mortensen offers online assistance tools like the Castlight health care management suite, which allows employees to research the cost of standard services like MRIs offered by different providers in their respective zip codes. Educating employees to make better choices is part of the program, and with more of their own skin in the game, the hope is they will make less costly decisions when warranted, such as choosing urgent care over emergency care for non-life-threatening needs. 

Weiss says the move to consumer-driven plans was not made because of the Affordable Care Act. “It’s something we’ve talked about for some time,” she noted. “We wanted to enable team members to make their own choices about health care so that we were dictating less about what’s covered. They take their own dollars and decide to use them for specific services.”

Tip 3: Consider industrial-strength bennies

To provide health benefits, Stafford Rosenbaum will continue to participate in the Dane County Bar Association plan for at least another year. Having local law firms band together to provide coverage allows the 70-employee, standalone firm to participate in a larger group plan and offer three different carrier options (Dean, Group Health Cooperative, and Physicians Plus). Typically, an organization of Stafford Rosenbaum’s size would only be able to offer a sole carrier. 

Smaller law firms under 50 employees are not as fortunate, as ACA regulations do not permit smaller employers to be part of an association plan. That has shrunk the size of the Dane County Bar Association plan from about 1,000 enrollees to roughly half that number, and made the renewal process more challenging because the plan, as formerly constituted, gave Stafford Rosenbaum the moderate cost experience of a much larger pool. “It helped us considerably because we are rated on the experience of a much larger group,” noted Michelle Andler, director of administration for Stafford Rosenbaum. 

For the 2014 plan year, some of the price quotes were not as advantageous, as quoted increases ranged from moderate to significant. That caused the group to look at possible plan design changes, but the plan design changes under consideration will still be above the mandated plan benefit level required by the ACA. 

Andler says Stafford Rosenbaum’s board of directors is committed to offering a group health plan. “We had to review our plans to make sure they offered the minimum level of benefits described, and they did,” she stated. “The impact the law had on the renewal process was the change in the makeup of the Dane County Bar plan. There was some question as to whether the plan would continue at all. We have requested several sole-carrier quotes and we’ve spent a lot of time considering different options.”

While the DCBA plan will continue into 2014, Andler says the 2015 plan year will bring additional changes. “There will be large-group options in the marketplace, and there will be as much or more evaluation required at renewal time next year,” she says.

Tip 4: Broaden your benefit horizon

While trying to figure out the right health plan to bring people to Madison and keep them here, the solution is broader than health benefits. It’s also about keeping your employees healthy through a wellness strategy that features a mix of carrots (cost discounts) for good health habits and sticks (financial penalties) for bad ones. Employers that invest in health screenings, employee assistance programs, flu shots, exercise opportunities, and chronic disease management not only boost productivity, they can positively influence insurance renewal rates.

For the 14th consecutive year, Suttle-Straus, a commercial printer based in Waunakee, has been recognized in the Printing Industries of America’s Best Workplaces program, which is judged by a panel of experienced HR professionals. In the past, Suttle-Straus has offered rebates for regular exercise, smoking cessation and nutrition classes, and discounts for health clubs, among other health and wellness benefits. 

The 2014 plan year will mark the first time Suttle-Straus offers a discount on insurance premiums for employees who take a health assessment, regardless of the result. The company will offer an additional discount for people who either pledge to be tobacco-free (including chewing or smokeless tobacco) in 2014 or who enroll in a tobacco-cessation program. For people who take full advantage of the discounts, the company pays 80% of the premiums for employees and 50% for dependents.

Otherwise, “everyone has access to the same plans, for the same rate, other than the discounts they can earn,” says Susan Pschorr, human resources director for Suttle-Straus.



Tip 5: Cascade your bonuses

David Sargent (CUNA Mutual Group) doesn’t know whether his company’s bonus plan is all that nontraditional, but CUNA does have a fairly aggressive plan for top executives. That plan is approved by the board of directors, and then CUNA begins to “cascade it” throughout the organization, provided various departments reach pre-set goals.

“Every individual has an opportunity to have a conversation with their manager that describes how their contribution ties to the business contribution, and that ties to the department contribution, and that ties to the organization’s contribution,” Sargent explained. “So think about it as a cascading effect from the top to the bottom.”

Hockeying for position: CUNA Mutual Group employees pass the puck as part of the organization's commitment to wellness, which includes a comprehensive fitness center for employees to use throughout the workday.

The plan itself doesn’t change much from year to year, but the goals do. Most of CUNA’s managers — the company has about 1,200 people with supervisory responsibilities — are in what’s called a discretionary plan and can move dollars around a bit more aggressively. The rest of the employees are in a more formulaic plan; based on their roles, there is a percentage of payout tied to a particular role, but it’s still pay-for-performance oriented. 

“So if someone is in a particular role and has, for instance, a 10% target payout, and they have an exceptionally good year, they may see a 15% payout, as compared to having a poor year and getting a lesser payout or even a zero payout for their individual performance,” Sargent explained.

Tip 6: Navigate the development train

There is a growing body of business literature that asserts that employers will have to pick up the pace of internal workforce training and professional development if they are to adequately address the so-called skills gap and fill vacant positions — especially given the sheer number of pending baby boomer retirements. Several of IB’s Best Companies at least partially reimburse employees for professional development or offer paid worker training.

John Berthelsen, president and CEO of Suttle-Straus, says the commercial printer does a lot of its own training and reimburses 100% for outside training that it sends employees to. Suttle-Straus has an on-site training center and offers education reimbursement assistance, updated skills training and cross training, and off-site and on-site seminars and webinars. It also encourages attendance at conferences and user-group meetings.

The commitment to worker training exists at any level, from the production floor all the way up to a master’s degree for managers, Berthelsen noted. “It could be replacing or it could be internal advancement or anything in between,” he says. “Someone could be promoted from within to a higher-level position, and they need advanced training. It could be hiring someone out of vocational school who needs advanced training for a skill position, or someone we are taking off the street, so to speak, who needs training for a position, or a manager who is moving up into a director or VP position who needs an advanced degree.”

Mortenson Construction is moving away from the label “training” to emphasize the broader concept of professional development at its own employee development program, also known as Mortensen University. It features online and in-person development as well as position-specific education to ensure that company expectations are communicated to employees (or team members, in the company’s vernacular). 

“What we have started to do is really take a look at not just training, but professional development, which is different,” explained Weiss. “Training is about learning a skill or learning how to do A instead of B, whereas professional development is fundamentally changing the skills and abilities that people have. Training can serve some purposes, but we’re really looking more at individual development, and how we can help all of our team members grow in specific areas.”

Scott Heberlein, director of operations for Mortenson Construction’s Milwaukee office, noted that both management and employees are responsible for identifying development opportunities in both formal meetings and casual interactions. Most of the development is provided internally so that it’s tailored to company expectations and standards. “I’d say that is definitely a two-way street,” he says. “Our supervisors and group leaders are mentors for our team members, but our team members are also responsible for the advancement of their careers. They have the most interest in advancing their careers, so it’s definitely a two-way street, and we foster that.”

Tip 7: Engage community service

Call it part of the benefits plan or call it part of company culture, but organizations that offer paid time off for community service, for a cause that is near and dear to individual employees, understand that it’s important to strengthen the communities in which their employees choose to live. CUNA Mutual Group, which provides financial services to credit unions and their members, has four major community outreach efforts — the Susan G. Komen Fund, the March of Dimes, United Way of Dane County, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. 

“I’m a northwest kid,” noted Sargent, who called CUNA the most altruistic company he’s ever worked for. “I thought I’d come here for a couple of years. I’ve been here for nine years, and a lot of it has to do with the company culture.”

Stafford Rosenbaum is also immersed in altruism, whether it’s encouraging pro bono work by its attorneys or giving employees paid time off to serve causes like Habitat for Humanity or United Way of Dane County’s Day of Caring. Every year, the firm also budgets an amount for each attorney and management staffer to contribute to civic, community, or nonprofit events on behalf of the firm “in their name, in something they personally support,” Andler notes. 

“Partners here also have the opportunity to make a leadership contribution,” she added. “If there is an organization that they participate in, in a leadership capacity such as a board of directors, a more substantial amount can be contributed. They do a personal match with that, but there is firm money that goes into it. It’s an 80-20 split, with the firm paying 80% and the partner paying 20%.”

Tip 8: Establish a differentiator

One way to stand out with your employee benefits package is to have a differentiator, a specific benefit that distinguishes your organization. At M3 Insurance, that difference-maker is a lucrative profit-sharing plan that’s tied to its retirement plan; should the company reach certain performance metrics, an additional percentage is added to the retirement savings in addition to the 401(k) company match of up to 4%. In the past two years, employees have seen an average 12% increase in their annual retirement contributions with the combination of the company 401(k) match and the profit-sharing component.

“That can be a life-changing amount of money,” says Zach Penshorn, director of human resources for M3 Insurance Solutions. “It also makes the employees feel like they are owners in the organization.”



What Makes a Company Best?

In this edition of In Business magazine, we present our second annual listing of the “Best Companies to Work For.” As was the case in 2012, our listing is predicated on employee benefits, which we believe are a reflection of an employer’s commitment to the welfare of its workforce.

While benefits are not the only way to evaluate a “Best Company,” there is no greater reflection of a company’s values. You’ll note the term fringe benefits is rarely used anymore, and that’s because there is nothing fringe about them. Upscale facilities and collegial managers are nice ingredients, but the best recipe for recruiting and retention success is an attractive and comprehensive benefits package.

All of the organizations certified by IB as a “Best Company” — levels Gold, Silver, and Bronze — scored highly in the health care section of the survey, where we measured commitment to individual and family coverage and spouse and domestic partner benefits, plus dental and vision insurance and the depth of wellness programs. 

We also asked employers to provide information on their 401(k) plans and any profit-sharing, child care, flex time, paid time off provisions, and benefits such as life and disability insurance, transportation reimbursement, and employee training and education. The latter will become especially important to employers who have difficulty finding the right skills to fill key positions, a situation that will challenge both employers and policymakers in the years to come.

Each category was assigned a certain number of points to reflect its importance in the overall employee benefits package. Certified companies are divided into three categories: Gold (scoring 226 or 265), Silver (scoring 200-225), and Bronze (scoring 175-199).


Tri-North Builders, Inc.
CUNA Mutual Group
Stafford Rosenbaum, LLP


Suttle-Straus, Inc.
M3 Insurance
M.A. Mortenson Co. (dba Mortenson Construction)
Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP
Widen Enterprises, Inc.
Valicom Corp.
QPS Employment Group
Fiskars Brands, Inc.
Kosnick Financial Group/Northwestern Mutual
Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. & Affiliates
Aprilaire, division of Research Products Corp.
Gingras, Cates & Luebke, S.C.
The QTI Group
WTS Paradigm, LLC
CG Schmidt, Inc.


Madison College
Palmer Johnson Power Systems
Summit Credit Union
CWAG – Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups
Strategic Brand Marketing
Wegner CPAs
First Business Financial Services, Inc.
Melius, Schurr & Cardwell
Safe Bridge Solutions
von Briesen & Roper, s.c.
Creative Business Interiors
JBM Patrol & Protection Corp.
Temperature Systems, Inc.
Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau

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