Benefits of creativity

With the competition for quality workers growing fierce, area companies become more creative in structuring their benefits packages.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

When you think about business innovation, it usually brings to mind the continual refinement of products and processes, but given the workforce challenges faced by Wisconsin businesses, the importance of designing a strong package of fringe benefits has brought out the creative juices in human resources departments.

In this annual presentation of Best Companies to Work For, we saw more evidence of creativity in the policies and benefits that build attractive workplace cultures, and it starts with pushing the envelope on health care and wellness benefits. Gordy Meicher, managing partner of Meicher CPAs in Madison, one of our Best Companies in the small business category, says employers no longer are passively encouraging their employees to exercise, eat healthier, and otherwise change their lifestyles for the better.

According to Meicher, who extends management overtime and various pampering benefits — on-site massage anyone? — during the grind of tax season, employers now are actively pushing employees to stay healthy.

Employers do so not only to achieve cost-savings with their health insurance benefits, but also because they get productivity returns. “Employees that exercise are better employees,” Meicher states. “They are more productive, they are more alert, they care more about themselves, and their self-esteem is better. There is every reason for me to want my employees to be healthy.”

As part of this year’s Best Companies to Work For presentation, we expanded the program in two ways. First, we added more benefits to existing categories such as health care and wellness, and we asked participating companies to identify additional benefits that are not otherwise mentioned on the survey. Second, we expanded the presentation beyond Dane County to businesses headquartered in the eight-county south central Wisconsin region.

We then selected the top five scorers in three size categories: Large companies, 200-plus employees; medium companies, 50-199 employees; and small companies, up to 49 employees. Congratulations go to Roche NimbleGen, which was the top overall scorer. All 15 Best Companies will be recognized on Wednesday, Oct. 21, during the annual IB Expo & Conference at the Alliant Energy Center.

Large Company (200+ employees)
Badgerland Financial

Exact Sciences
University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics
Meriter-UnityPoint Health
Madison College

Medium Company (50–199 employees)
Roche NimbleGen

Raven Software
Turville Bay MRI Radiation Oncology Center
WEA Member Benefits

Small Company (1–49 employees)
Leonardo Academy Inc.

Hardin Design & Development
Palmer Johnson Power Systems
Terso Solutions
Meicher CPAs

To be considered for the 2016 Best Companies To Work For, fill out the online nomination form at



Winner: Large Company

Badgerland Financial: Seeking healthy returns

Well-traveled staff: Employees of Badgerland Financial, pictured here in the company’s Sun Prairie location, receive a vehicle for their personal and business use if they drive 6,000 or more business miles in a given year. The benefit is offered because the company serves people in rural areas of the state, requiring employees to rack up the miles.

Badgerland Financial is in the business of extending credit to farmers, but in the interest of a healthy workforce, it gives employees some credit, too. The company has established a Stay Well – Healthy Returns program at no cost to employees, spouses, and domestic partners who are on the company medical plan.

Named for Badgerland Financial’s wellness vendor, the program offers healthy living information along with one-on-one coaching over the phone. Those employees who wish to participate are required to complete a health assessment as well as annual biometric screenings for height, weight, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and glucose. Once a baseline is established, employees can track progress toward their goals over time. Employees can participate in a variety of “take-action” programs, including community activities, and in return the company provides monetary incentives. Each participant can earn up to $300 per year.

Tom Blackbourn, vice president of human resources for Badgerland Financial, says the company committed to a wellness program to help improve the overall physical, mental, and emotional well being of employees and their families. “We also hope that focusing on wellness will not only improve overall health but also help control health care costs,” he states.

Badgerland Financial is part of the national Farm Credit System and partners with more than 40 other farm credit organizations to offer benefits like Stay Well – Healthy Returns, but it doesn’t stop there. The company also has an Automobile Program for employees who drive 6,000 or more business miles in a year. Under the program, Badgerland will purchase a vehicle for their personal and business use, and the employee pays a monthly and personal mileage usage charge. “Since our business is to serve people in rural Wisconsin, employees often have to travel a considerable amount to reach the communities we serve,” Blackbourn explains.

Work-life balance, employee recognition and engagement, and financial education are additional hallmarks of Badgerland’s benefits package, and all benefits are mutually beneficial. One of its newer programs, a retirement notice award, provides a monetary bonus for employees who give at least 12 months notice before they retire, allowing the company to put a transition plan in place and hire a replacement to work with the retiring employee and get to know customers. The rationale, Blackbourn indicates, is to transfer a lifetime of know-how before it heads out the door. “We have many tenured employees who have extensive customer knowledge and experience that we try to transfer to new employees by allowing time for them to work together through a focused transition plan.”



Winner: Medium Company

Roche NimbleGen: Multitasking benefits

The workforce at Roche NimbleGen enjoys a generous family leave policy in which they receive one month paid leave, pre-delivery, for mothers and six weeks of paid leave for fathers and domestic partners. Next year, if mothers give birth before that month is up, they can add unused pre-deivery time to the leave they get post-delivery.

Employees at Roche NimbleGen are expected to multitask, but the fringe benefit rewards make it worth their while. Nobody knows that better than Michelle Venturini, who doubles as director of human resources and site SHE (safety, health, and environmental) officer.

There is talk of government mandating paid maternity and perhaps paternity leave, but Roche NimbleGen, which develops gene-sequencing tools, is among the companies that is out in front of Uncle Sam. The company’s family leave policy includes one month of paid leave, pre-delivery, for mothers and six weeks of paid leave for fathers and domestic partners. According to Venturini, it had nothing to do with the makeup of the workforce — i.e. young couples looking to raise a family — it was to recognize the importance of family “in that first year after a child is born.”

Next year, the benefit will be enriched. “When it was rolled out, it was one month paid leave, and if you delivered the baby early, you just lost whatever time in that one month you didn’t get to use,” Venturini notes. “It’s changing so that if you take off the month before and you deliver two weeks early, you can add those two [unused] weeks post-delivery.

“The employee interest is especially with the partners. They appreciate having the flexibility to take the time.”

One would think 401(k) plans, established long ago, no longer lend themselves to creativity, but Roche NimbleGen has given them a new twist. Every year in March, the company deposits 6% of an employee’s Dec. 31 salary in a 401(k) account, whether or not an employee participates in the 401(k) program. For employees who haven’t established an account, the money becomes their 401(k), and they can invest the funds as they wish. Does it provide an incentive for people to establish a retirement account? “It makes them think about it, sure,” Venturini says.

Employees are expected to put a lot of thought into workplace culture, especially as they get opportunities to hone their leadership skills by leading teams in areas outside of their expertise, and as they address the findings of Roche’s global employee opinion surveys. Those surveys have led to things like eight hours of paid time off for community service and greater investment in ergonomically friendly office furniture.

Says NimbleGen President and CEO Rebecca Selzer: “We’re really putting that in the employees’ hands, and they appreciate it and feel a sense of ownership for the company, for their job, and for the culture here.”



Winner: Small Company

Leonardo Academy: Sustaining the workplace

Leonardo Academy believes in sustainability, including a sustainable benefits package in which workers have a choice of responsible investment options as part of the company’s 403b program. Offered through MassMutual, the special-equities program promotes the company’s values with investments in environmental stewardship and a prohibition on funds that invest in weaponry.

Michael Arny is fond of citing the three components of sustainability — environment, economic prosperity, and people — and his company’s benefits package is primarily about the latter. For Arny, the president of Leonardo Academy, a Madison-based nonprofit organization that works with companies to advance sustainability, taking good care of employees is aligned with organizational values.

“The traditional environmental movement is focused on reducing emissions and other impacts on the environment, but sustainability has expanded the view of what’s important if we’re going to take good care of life on this planet,” Arny states. “The two things that have been added are thinking about how the decisions we make, both as companies and as individuals, affect people as well as the environment, and second, how we contribute to economic prosperity. We think taking care of our employees is a very important part of fulfilling our mission.”

When Leonardo Academy was looking for a new office, parameters of the search included bike racks, shower facilities, and proximity to a bike path, and its new digs in the Gialamas Co. office building, at 8401 Excelsior Drive in Sauk Trails Park, fit the bill. It’s all in keeping with the Fitness & More program, offered through Unity Health Insurance, in which employees are reimbursed up to $200 annually if they join the Princeton Club, take yoga classes, participate in a weight-management program, or take another healthy step.

The goal, according to Tracy Spoeth-Jaworski, accounting and human resource manager for Leonardo Academy, is to keep employees away from the doctor for everything except preventive care. “We started researching and it wasn’t much more to have an insurance plan that helped promote healthy lifestyles,” she says. “It’s costing a little bit more, but we feel it’s an added benefit for our employees. Everybody is at their desk eight to 10 hours a day, so it’s a good form of stress relief.”

A rare company that tracks and reports its total emissions, Leonardo Academy promotes working from home as a way to reduce emissions. Yet another pillar of sustainable benefits is socially responsible investing options for the company’s 403b program. Offered through MassMutual, the special-equities program has to meet company requirements, including the promotion of environmental stewardship and a prohibition of funds that invest in weaponry.

“These impacting investments give investors the opportunity to focus their investments on companies that drive societal improvements,” Spoeth-Jaworski notes, “both locally and globally.”

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